Uncertain definition of Brexit complicates Britain’s transition
Without a clear consensus around what a Brexit truly entails, the United Kingdom’s ability to construct a favorable departure strategy is in jeopardy.
It has been three months since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. What has become clear since is that there is no clear consensus on what Britain’s position out of the EU is going to look like — a frequently mentioned point from the Remain camp.
Many questions surrounding Britain’s departure from Europe have yet to be resolved. Should Britain remain part of the single market? How exactly is immigration going to be controlled? When should Article 50 be triggered, and should there be a second referendum to approve the deal?
Together, these lingering questions make clear that Brexit is a term without concrete definition.
Brexit and the single market
One prominent aspect on the debate over what Brexit should mean concerns whether Britain should try to remain a member of the European single market. While many of those who campaigned for Remain, some among the Leave camp, and those who work in financial services would like Britain to remain in the single market, numerous Brexiters want to stay out altogether.
The Secretary of State for Leaving the European Union, David Davis, has stated it is ‘very improbable’ that the UK will remain part of the single market if it is to control immigration. He was rebuked by his Prime Minister, Theresa May, who said that his comments were simply ‘his opinion’ rather than government policy.
The conflict arises because, under current EU rules, membership of the single market is reliant on allowing freedom of movement. Unless Britain can negotiate a compromise, it will have to accept the freedom of movement principle many voted to end in order to preserve the economic benefits of the single market.
Immigration was arguably the biggest issue in the referendum, as high immigration was seen as a strong cause of the UK’s current problems. In this regard, Brexit means reducing and controlling immigration.
The Leave campaign promoted the introduction of an Australian style points system to regulate who came in and out of the country. However, May has rejected that proposal and has seemingly opened up the debate for other ideas. Recently, her successor as Home Secretary suggested a work permit system may be an option considered.
Ultimately, there are many options for controlling immigration. Unfortunately for the government, controlling immigration has become a political necessity in the wake of the Brexit vote. The Leave campaign won because a majority of the U.K. population wanted to have control over its borders, and leaving the EU was seen as the way to do that. If the government is not able to achieve that, a disgruntled public will be escalated to even greater levels of dissatisfaction — and therefore more prone to disruptive political action.
Triggering Article 50
That the decision of when to begin the Brexit process is a matter of conflict demonstrates how undefined Brexit really is.
Under EU law, the UK will formally begin the process for leaving the Union when it officially triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty in a speech or letter. From then on, the UK will have a two-year period to negotiate a deal with the rest of the EU on their relationship and the terms which define it—including free trade, immigration, and currency.
However, when that trigger will be pulled has still not been decided. Many dates have been suggested, ranging from immediately, to the end of 2016, to after the French and German elections in 2017, to even as late as 2019.
What is clear is that, to keep any credibility, the UK has to trigger Article 50 within reasonable time — even if, technically and legally, it has no obligation to do so. Comments by prominent figures urging the government to begin the process quickly, as is the case with President of the European Council Donald Tusk, provide evidence for this.
With even the timescales for Brexit undecided, little certainty exists about Britain’s future.
Chance of second referendum
Something that complicates the situation even further is the concept of a second referendum, where the UK could have a second say on their relationship with the EU.
The crux of this argument lies in the fact that a 75% voter turnout threshold was not reached, and the winning side had less than 60% of the vote — meaning much of Britain did not have their voice heard.
While the possibility was actually debated in parliament and subsequently dismissed, the concept of a second vote has not disappeared. For example, Labour leadership contender Owen Smith, who was defeated by Jeremy Corbyn over the weekend, campaigned for the UK to have this vote in the form of a second referendum or in a general election. He went so far as to propose that — if he had been elected leader — he would have campaigned in an election on the platform of applying to re-enter the EU.
Whatever the format, these requests are complicating the situation further and undermining the Brexit process, making it even harder to define.
In conclusion, it is clear that “Brexit means Brexit” has become a hollow statement in the few short months following the vote. The very term Brexit has become hard to define. The UK has to grasp the situation and provide answers to the questions at hand if it is to have any hope of negotiating a deal that benefits them.
These are among the most critical handful of months Britain has ever faced. The government needs to begin setting definitions if it is to have a strong future. Otherwise, the continuing political and economic uncertainty threatens to engulf it.