On November 6, 2019, The Global Policy Institute held the event “Next Steps: A Roundtable on Brexit and The European Union.” Nicholas Cull, professor of communications and director of the Master of Public Diplomacy Program, and Deputy Consul General of the Los Angeles British Consulate Collette Weston led the roundtable discussion around the most recent events surrounding Brexit.
The UK held a referendum in June of 2016 to decide whether or not to stay a member of the European Union. The public voted and the results were 48% to stay and 52% to leave. For the UK, this began the process of leaving the EU. However, what exactly this entailed was unclear, and the British government has been trying to figure this out since. The UK has had two prime ministers resign since the Brexit vote. In this time the UK invoked the EU charter’s Article 50 which outlines steps for leaving the EU and gives two years to make a deal for exiting. Since then, the deadline has been extended three times, with the current deadline of January 31st.
Professor Cull began the discussion from a historical perspective of the UK and Brexit decision. He argued that Britain has always viewed themselves as an exceptional country, and their role in World War 2 feeds into this. Britain remembers the war as one of British victory and heroics, but also as a war fought alone. The European Union came after the war, and as such, there is a generational divide in the UK of historical memories of British identity. Gen Xers, such as current Prime Minister Boris Johnson, subscribe to an older wartime narrative that the UK belongs outside of the EU. There are deep generational and cultural divides on the issue.
Cull also articulated that the UK’s entry into the EU was mishandled. Government propaganda promoting the EU as the economic future ended shortly after it was clear the British people wished to be a part of the EU. Promotion of the EU and British involvement ceased, whereas specific regions such as Northern Ireland retained positive European sentiment in the wake of peacekeeping operations.
Cull emphasized that Brexit has been an issue a long time in the making. It is a multigenerational issue that is a point of concern on how political divisions and lines have been drawn. Closing his initial statements, Cull remarked that the EU has been a remarkable achievement, and it is astonishing that the UK may be leaving.
Deputy Consul General Collette Weston began by explaining her role at the Los Angeles British Consulate and the culture of British civil service. A majority of British civil service is politically neutral. Embassies are made up of career civil servants with only a few political appointees. Their role is to deliver and represent current government policies.
Weston then explained the history of Brexit, beginning with David Cameron’s government as Prime Minister. The Labor party had a majority control for a long time before the conservative party formed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. The Tory party had wrestled with what to do with European relations for some time, and settled on two referendums: one for Scottish independence, that failed, and one for the European Union.
The British tension with the European Union had been bubbling under the surface since Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister.
After the Brexit referendum passed in the majority for leaving the EU, David Cameron stepped down as Prime Minister. Theresa May was then launched into the position, who later invoked the EU’s Article 50 to begin the process of leaving. While PM, she made a deal to leave the EU, but it did not pass in Parliament and her party lost several MPs. Some argued her deal went too far, while others thought it did not go far enough, while the dreaded Irish Backstop was largely unresolved. After failing to get a deal through Parliament, May resigned as Prime Minister.
Boris Johnson succeeded her and has been Prime Minister for shortly over 100 days. Parliament was temporarily suspended for a Queen’s Speech but quickly came back. While Johnson heavily pushed for a No Deal Brexit, the Benn Act was passed which forced him to ask for another extension from the EU if a deal could not be met by the October 31st deadline. Parliament has been in agreement that a No Deal Brexit is unfavorable and as a result, no deal was made. The EU then granted an extension of the deadline to January 31st.
Members of the conservative party who voted in favor of the Benn Act were kicked out of the party, including senior party members. A general election is now quickly approaching in the UK that is highly unpredictable, and it is unclear where the majority will be.
It is clear that Boris Johnson wants to leave the EU by the new January 31st deadline. The Labor party has expressed they want to negotiate a deal, and possibly hold a second referendum. The Liberal Democrats are pro-remain in the EU and could potentially form a coalition government.
While the future of Brexit is unclear, and the looming general election uncertain, Weston emphasized the contemporary relevance of the famous wartime slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On.” She assured that regardless of what happens, Britain’s role in human rights, security, and other institutions will continue to hold strong.