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Softening a Hard Brexit

In 2016, the United Kingdom (UK) held a referendum on whether it would leave the European Union (EU) – or “Brexit.” Three years later, the mechanics of Brexit are still not agreed upon. The UK has until March 29th to come to an agreement with the EU on the terms of Brexit, or else a “hard Brexit” will occur, leading to massive economic upheaval.

However, there are other options available. The decision for Brexit was made by the British people, and they deserve a say in how Brexit will happen. As such, a second referendum is necessary to not only add clarity to what the British people want, but also to make sure that they are still in favor of Brexit.

Picture courtesy of Bobek Ltd.

After the referendum results came back as a Leave victory, David Cameron, who instigated the referendum, resigned as prime minister (PM), and Theresa May became PM, and thus taking the reins for Brexit. A failed snap election in 2017 that saw her lose the majority in the House of Commons distracted and delayed from negotiations with the EU over Brexit terms. After over a year of negotiations, May and the EU finally reached a deal for a “soft Brexit” that is acceptable to both parties, but politicians in London immediately criticized it, and it was rejected by the House of Commons. In a subsequent vote on January 30th, the Commons instructed the PM to attempt to renegotiate the deal, in particular the Irish backstop, with the EU. Not an hour after that vote, the EU responded that the deal was not up for renegotiation.

Much of the contention revolved around the so-called Irish backstop. As members of the EU single market and customs union, there are very few restrictions on crossing the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is a part of the UK. This arrangement is credited with helping to keep the peace in Northern Ireland, as it is feared that a hard border between the two could lead to resumed violence. At the same time, keeping a soft border in Ireland means that Northern Ireland has created an internal customs barrier between itself and the rest of the UK. This, according to Theresa May, threatens the integrity of the UK. The agreement reached in November between May and the EU is that the UK as a whole would remain aligned to the EU customs regulations until 2020, giving both parties time to negotiate a solution to avoid a hard border. Hardline Brexiteers have condemned this solution, and the backstop is a major reason for the rejection of the Brexit deal by the Commons.

A “hard Brexit” would occur if no deal for a “soft Brexit” is made, and is a fate several orders of magnitude worse than a deal with the backstop. The UK would lose privileged access to the European single market and customs union. Customs inspections on goods coming from the EU would need to be reinstated, but there is no infrastructure currently in place for this. Factory supply chains would be severely impacted by the resulting clog at Britain’s ports of entry. British airlines would have to renegotiate their access to EU airspace, as their EU airspace authorization would no longer be valid. Banks based in London, afraid of losing access to the EU financial sector should a hard Brexit occur, are starting to move financial assets from London to Frankfurt, resulting in a loss of jobs and financial capital. Only a Brexit deal (or reversal) could keep them in the UK. The free movement of people between the UK and the EU would also cease under a hard Brexit, leaving the fate of many EU nationals currently living in the UK uncertain.

This whole process was started by a nationwide referendum. As the March 29th deadline nears, the British people must be allowed a final, direct say in Brexit. The referendum should not be a binary “leave or remain” choice as in the previous referendum, but rather it should take a more nuanced account of the public’s attitudes towards the current Brexit chaos. This new referendum must at least ask: 1) Is the deal struck with the EU in November acceptable, including the Irish backstop?; 2)Would you support an extension to the withdrawal period for the purpose of extended negotiations to avoid a hard Brexit?; and 3) Should the government continue to pursue Brexit, or should the government reverse Article 50 and remain in the EU? This latter option is not so far-fetched, as the European Court of Justice ruled that the UK can unilaterally halt Brexit. Further, there is considerable frustration with the UK over Brexit, and there is a great deal of sentiment for the UK to remain in the EU.

PM May has been given an impossible task and the House of Commons has not been helpful. The British people are preparing for the worst. Something must be done to get some clarity from the British people regarding what they want from Brexit, if they still want Brexit at all. There must be a second, comprehensive referendum, before time runs out.


John Ashley

John Ashley was the 2017 YPFP Nuclear Security Fellow; he holds a Master of International Policy degree from the University of Georgia, where his studies concentrated in CBRN nonproliferation, export controls, and international security. John also holds a B.A. in History from the University of Georgia, and wrote his thesis on the Great War in Africa. His career goal is to work on the committee staff for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
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