After the historic defeat on the meaningful vote, the political crisis has reached a new peak in the UK. We have asked 10 of our experts to share their views on the current state of Brexit and their best predictions on what could happen next: Dr Uta Staiger (UCL European Institute), Prof. Ronan McCrea (UCL Laws), Dr Tim Beasley-Murray (UCL SSEES), Dr Kirsty Hughes (UCL European Institute Advisory Board), Prof. Albert Bressand (UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources), Prof. Philippe Marlière (UCL SELCS), Dr Thomas Gift (UCL Political Science), Dame Nicola Brewer (UCL Vice-Provost International), Dr. Nick Wright (UCL Political Science) and Dr. Francois Guesnet (UCL Hebrew & Jewish Studies).
A crisis is, literally, the point at which change must come.
Dr Uta Staiger – UCL European Institute
“ For well over two years now, the Brexit process has been called a crisis of historic proportions. But it is only now, perhaps, that we can truly call it such. The clue lies in the word itself. We tend to understand “crisis” essentially as a moment of utter, unsettling instability – and who would deny that our way out of the EU is proving to be just that? But etymologically, a crisis is also a crucial moment in time: it is literally the critical point at which an important change must come. Whether such change is for better or for worse is of course the question. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, for one, used krisis to mean “that turning point in a disease which indicates either recovery or death”. This is hardly reassuring. But with barely 11 weeks to go until exit day, we must, surely, have arrived at our very own turning point? Important change is now no doubt afoot? If only.
Why we seem so far from this point might be explained, paradoxically, with the Greek verb from which “crisis” derives. Krinein literally means “to choose, to decide a dispute, to discern, to judge”. Yet of course, our current crisis is rooted precisely in the inability of our entire political class, and in many ways our society as a whole, to come to any decision at all. No option currently commands the majority of parliament – or, it seems, of voters. No decision, ergo, seems possible. Ours is a crisis of krisis. Yet if we remain caught within this critical double bind, all we can look forward to from our respective trenches is a country ripping itself apart for years to come. Crisis, indeed. “
It is not possible for the Government to “take no deal off the table”.
Prof. Ronan McCrea – UCL Laws
” Parliament cannot unilaterally rule out a no deal scenario. Neither is it possible for the Government to “take no deal off the table” as Jeremy Corbyn has demanded of the Prime Minister. Under Article 50 no deal is the automatic outcome of a failure to reach a deal. No deal cannot be removed from the table as a possible outcome until a Withdrawal Agreement is agreed with the EU and ratified by the UK. A demand to “take no deal off the table” makes sense only if accompanied by a concrete proposal of a Withdrawal Agreement that the EU will agree to. It is also important to note that the a Withdrawal Agreement under Article 50 cannot cover the future economic relationship between the UK and the EU. Article 50 can over the departure conditions alone.
The future economic relationship will take a long time to negotiate and will have to be ratified by each Member State (unlike the Article 50 agreement which needs only a qualified majority). The fact that senior politicians continue to put forward proposals that are incompatible with widely known legal limitations is very worrying. ”
In times of chaos and flux, flexibility is the key to successful leadership.
Dr Tim Beasley-Murray – UCL SSEES
” The tragic aspect of the Brexit drama is only enhanced by its depressing predictability, as it reaches its final act. Its protagonist, Theresa May, knows only how to stick to her lines – red ones, of course – and hence a sticky end seems long scripted. Mrs May’s unbendingness, a quality that some praise as resilience, is, and is likely to remain, her tragic flaw.
In contrast, Machiavelli, a thinker who was concerned with the search for stability and order in times of chaos and flux (times like ours, then), identifies flexibility as the key to successful leadership: “if times and affairs change, [the Prince] is ruined if he does not change his course of action. But a man is not often found sufficiently clever to know how to accommodate himself to the change. This is because he cannot deviate from what nature inclines him to do.” (The Prince, chapter 25). If he is not to be snapped and broken by the raging torrents of unpredictable fortuna, then, the Prince must display the real strength (virtú) that, perhaps counterintuitively, consists in the capacity to bend.”
What Britain needs now are leaders possessed of this sort of strength: flexibility of disposition, agility in forming alliances, suppleness of imagination. Our tragedy lies, in part, in the fact that these are qualities that our leaders – Theresa May but also, in a similar and different fashion, Jeremy Corbyn – so patently lack. Both seem unable to deviate from what nature inclines them to do. Only the ability to change, however, will prevent the Brexit drama from arriving at a final, bloody act, bodies strewn across the stage; only the ability to change will write a better and happier script. “
We are witnessing a major failing of the UK political and constitutional process.
Dr Kirsty Hughes – UCL European Institute Advisory Board
” We are witnessing a major failing of the UK political and constitutional process. The two main parties are deeply split over Brexit. The splits within the Tory party that resulted in the fateful and unnecessary choice, by David Cameron, to have a referendum have led to a deeply divided and alienated public. And the two and half years of the Brexit process so far have damaged the economy, society (and individuals and countries beyond the UK – little commented on), seriously undermined the UK’s relationships with its EU allies, trashed its international reputation and standing, and so also damaged our security.
There is no serious leadership in the Conservative or Labour parties that seems capable of rising to this moment. In Scotland, talk of another independence referendum is on the rise. Wherever Brexit goes next, this political and constitutional crisis will reverberate for years to come. “
There is a parallel between the constitutional issues in the UK and the European Union.
Prof. Albert Bressand – UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources
” Brexit illustrates, first, the costs for the UK of not having a written constitution that would clarify how “the will of the people” can be consistently expressed through different routes. The role of Parliament, the call on a referendum (and the lack of any qualified majority voting rule for Constitution-like issues), ad hoc requirements for “meaningful votes”, or constraints on what the government may or may not do are left to the serendipity of a few political leaders. For outside observers, it is surprising to hear the British PM state that going for a second referendum would be undemocratic, this after a first vote that was decided by only a third of the electorate on partial, or partisan information.
For the EU27, the impact of Brexit will be both positive and negative. On the positive side, Brexit is showing how deep European law is reaching into the national fabric—from the supply of medicines to greatly easing ‘Good Friday’ peace agreements. The states of the Union are shown to have become member states, with member statehood a distinct legal status (Bickerton, 2012). On the negative side, the Union is in a Constitutional state not unlike that of the UK. The rejection of the proposed Constitutional treaty of 2004 leaves the Union in the state of a functional construct which citizens may experience as not in tune with their identity and agency. Proclaiming “the Hour of European Sovereignty” (Juncker, 2018) in the absence of clear European borders, of fully understood Constitutional rules, and of a clearly stated role for national identities leaves integration forces exposed to vitriolic challenges to their legitimacy. Post Brexit, these will express in the form of distrustful participation in the Union’s governance, leading possibly to frustration, bitterness and, at some point, rising hostility across national borders.
The UK would do the Union—and itself– a favour by replacing Brexit with a proposed Constitutional Treaty that would eschew opt-outs and clarify the opt-ins of European political identities for all. “
There is only one democratic and transparent solution left: a second referendum.
Prof. Philippe Marliere – UCL SELCS
” Theresa May’s deal was emphatically voted down by MPs, from the left, right and centre of the political spectrum. There is now clear evidence that there is no majority in the House for a specific type of Brexit (hard or soft). Whatever amendments may be made to the initial deal, they will never satisfy a majority of MPs: the EU is on record as saying time and again that this deal would not be substantially altered. Yet politicians on both sides of the House keep pretending otherwise. Instead of speaking honestly to the public, they further confuse people. A dissolution and a general election would not solve the matter either.
There is only one democratic and transparent solution left: a second referendum. Given the current blockage and the risk of a major political crisis, it would seem only fair to postpone the exit date, and organise a second vote. The British people should vote again to acknowledge the contribution made by the 3 million European citizens who live and work in the UK, a country where they have chosen to live with their families because they found it tolerant and welcoming. Those European citizens and their contribution to British society have been totally ignored by politicians of all sides which is indeed shameful. “
The EU’s interest is — and always has been — self-preservation.
Dr Thomas Gift – UCL Political Science
” The EU’s interest is — and always has been — self-preservation. By taking a hardline position on Brexit, the EU hopes to set an example of the UK that abandoning the institution will not come without costs. To the extent that a hunger exists for exiting the EU in other European nations, one would think that the precarious situation in which the UK now finds itself would make even the staunchest Eurosceptics think twice before plowing ahead with their own versions of an EU divorce. Nevertheless, the EU’s single-tracked emphasis on preempting any further challenges to its authority — and particularly ones that would pose an existential threat in the long-term — does raise questions.
One of the promises of cosmopolitan institutions, including the EU, is that they bring nations together along shared interests to promote the common good. When a multilateral organization is forced to take such an unyielding approach to protect its own survival, it could be that something more fundamental with the institution is in need of rethinking. “
The chances of a ‘softer’ Brexit or a People’s Vote have probably increased.
Dame Nicola Brewer – UCL Vice-Provost International
“ The latest developments in the British parliament, and the continuing uncertainty only two months before 29 March, all vindicate UCL’s decision early last autumn to work up detailed actions plans for No Deal, in addition to previous mitigation action planning for a negotiated Brexit. With parliament’s rejection of the Prime Minister’s deal, and the scale of MPs’ opposition to No Deal, the chances of a ‘softer’ Brexit or a People’s Vote have probably increased. This is broadly encouraging for the HE sector. But the way forward procedurally and constitutionally is still far from clear. ”
There is very little the EU could offer in terms of renegotiation.
Dr Nick Wright – UCL Political Science
“ As the statements by European Council President Tusk and Commission President Juncker show, the EU position remains one of wait and see. The Meaningful Vote outcome on Tuesday was not surprising – the expectation since the deal was agreed in November was that Mrs May would lose. It was just a question of by how much. The scale of that loss means there is very little the EU could offer in terms of any renegotiation (even if they wanted to) which would persuade sufficient MPs to change their position. The EU has made clear the backstop – the main but by no means only problems MPs have with the Withdrawal Agreement – must remain in some form; and this is in any case a function of Mrs May’s own red lines: leaving the Single Market and Customs Union; leaving the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the EU; and ending Freedom of Movement. In short, the current Withdrawal Agreement is close to the best deal available to the UK given those conditions.
This means the ongoing problems remain – as they have throughout – a question of UK domestic politics. If a clear position emerges from the UK then the EU will seek to facilitate an agreement, including agreeing to extend Article 50. The EU’s primary interest remains an orderly UK departure unless the UK changes its mind. Alternatively, they are determined to minimise any disruption from a disorderly Brexit.”
The only rational perspective seems to negotiate a status similar to Norway or Switzerland.
Dr Francois Guesnet – UCL Hebrew & Jewish Studies
“ Among the most remarkable features of the current situation concerning Brexit is the substantial and stable support for a departure from the European Union, hovering around 42-46% of those surveyed recently. While there is a trend of growing support for stopping this departure, it is by no means overwhelming. Given the toxicity of the debate, both public and private, and the likelihood of another massive propaganda campaign of those in support of Brexit, the idea that a referendum could lead to averting Brexit, or to a lasting and satisfactory settlement, seems delusional to me. Whereever the responsibility for this deplorable situation lies, it needs to take into consideration the substantial desire for a formal departure.
As this cannot be justification for collective economic suicide, the only rational perspective seems to negotiate a status similar to the one of Norway or Switzerland. Unfortunately, a rational approach to this particular political deadlock seems unpopular with the current government. The prominent remarks concerning the status of EU citizens by the current Prime Minister after the defeat of the Withdrawal Agreement seem a thinly veiled threat to use this, as well as a No deal-Brexit, as an ‘argument’ in her negotiations with the House of Commons, and potentially the EU27. ”
Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the authors, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.