After a choice driven by ‘decades of dissatisfaction,’ the future remains unclear

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Harold James
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History and Woodrow Wilson School professor Harold James — a leading academic and expert in European history and globalization — tells PAW’s Allie Wenner about the available options for the U.K. as it nears the April 12 Brexit deadline, how the issue of leaving the European Union was brought to the table to begin with, and why he doesn’t think Theresa May will be Britain’s prime minister for much longer.

This is part of a monthly series of interviews with alumni, faculty, and students. 


AW: You’re listening to the PAWcast. I’m Allie Wenner, and I’m here with professor Harold James. He is an expert in European history and globalization, and he’s here today to talk all about Brexit, which is expected to spark the most significant change to the U.K.’s trade and foreign policy in decades. Thank you for being here, Harold. It’s great to have you on.

HJ: It’s great to be with you, Allie, thank you.

AW: When it comes to Brexit, I think a lot of Americans are still unsure as to why this whole situation is happening. From an outside perspective, it seems like the European Union has generally been pretty good to you guys. So I’m wondering if you could tell us a little bit about why a vote to leave the European Union was brought to the table to begin with.

HJ: It’s a bit of a surprise move. You’re absolutely right. It goes back before the vote in 2016. There’s been a civil war, really, within the conservative party, also to some extent within the labor party, for a very, very long time. As time went on, the anti-EU element of the conservative party got stronger, but also the party faced electoral competition from a party whose main raison d’etre was to get out of the EU, called UKIP, U.K. Independence Party. And many conservative MPs and conservative leadership were worried that they were losing out to UKIP and that they would have an erosion of their votes. And so, in the 2015 general election, the prime minister put in a promise to hold a referendum on EU membership. And it worked extremely well in the sense that the UKIP vote collapsed, so there wasn’t very much of a UKIP vote. But it worked in a sense to well, because the prime minister got a majority in the House of Commons, and he thought that probably he would just have a coalition government and that he would be constrained by the coalition partly not to have the referendum, but he was there with the majority. He had to have the referendum, and that’s how this thing came about. But it really reflects, I think, decades of dissatisfaction with the European Union.

AW: Can you elaborate a little bit more on the dissatisfaction? What do a lot of pro-Brexit people feel ­— how do they feel that the U.K. would benefit from leaving the European Union?

HJ: The intellectual case for Brexit was made about taking back control. “Taking Back Control” was a big phrase and the idea was that a lot of British law was no longer being made in London by Parliament, but was being made in Brussels and it wasn’t subject to a proper consent process, although, in fact all EU legislation does go through the National Parliaments, but there’s such a lot of it, and a lot of it is pretty mundane kind of stuff on regulatory issues. But that was the intellectual case. Then there’s another case, which you won't find so many of the figures in Oxford, and Cambridge, and London who are making plausible arguments in newspapers about the whole story. You won't find this so much with them, but the case that got a lot of resonance was about migration. And the story there is that when a lot of east European countries were admitted to the European Union in two stages, 2005 and then in 2007, most EU countries put a limit on migration from those countries for a transition period. Britain didn’t, Ireland didn’t, and Sweden didn’t. And all three of those countries had a lot of east and central European immigration. For many people, that looks positive, but for many people, they also saw the immigration as a threat of people who were taking away their jobs or pressing down on their wage levels, and so the anti-migration story was a big part of the background. And the 2016 referendum was also run by the organization that pushed the leave case, was run with very, very emotional arguments and pictures of lots of people coming in from the Middle East and a story that Turkey would be soon admitted the European Union, and then there would be Turkish people in every European Union member. There were all kinds of rather exaggerated scare stories there, but in that sense, there’s a little bit of commonality I think with the 2016 election in the United States that migration is indeed a big theme.

AW: Now a lot has happened over the past few weeks leading up to the original Brexit deadline, which was March 29. Harold, would you mind just bringing us up to speed as to where things stand as of early April with Brexit, and what the options are for the it tries to decide on a plan going forward?

HJ: Originally, the process was a simple one. It was dictated by the treaty framework that regulates the life of the European Union. The Lisbon Treaty gave you for the first time this exit clause under Article 50. Once that’s invoked, there was a two-year timeframe in which an exit solution would be negotiated. And then when the two years were up, whether the exit framework was negotiated or not, you would be out. But in practice, the government was unable to negotiate something the parliament could agree to, and so the deadline was extended very, very briefly to the 12th of April, and we’re sitting here at the beginning of April not really still knowing where it’s going. And there are all kinds of radical possibilities open. So on the one hand, it’s conceivable that the whole thing could be dropped altogether and the European legal authorities, the European Court of Justice has made a ruling on that, that if there’s a constitutionally proper process of revoking Article 50, then that’s the end of it. And so it’s just conceivable that Britain could remain in the EU. I think it’s very doubtful. There’s also an increasing probability that there could be an exit on the 12th of April with no agreement at all, and there are likely to be all kinds of unforeseen complications if that’s the case. And there are some scenarios about how there may be food shortages and shortages of basic medicines because trade would have to be controlled from one day to another, and it’s difficult to imagine that the administrative capacity is really there to deal with all of that. So those are the extreme solutions. And then it’s also possible, and at the moment that looks as if it’s the likelier option, that there will be a parliamentary majority for some kind of softer solution, maybe a permanent customs union, maybe something that goes even beyond that, where actually a lot of EU legislation has to be accepted in order to do that. So the sovereignty point about the original claim to get out of the European Union is being ignored in that kind of proposal. But that looks as if it’s the one that will be the least disruptive and do the least harm. There’s I think a fair measure of chance that that may be implemented, but it’s not at all certain at the moment.

AW: And I want to talk for a minute about Northern Ireland, and specifically its border with Ireland. This is something that I’ve been seeing a lot in the headlines. I’m wondering if you’d tell us why this has caused such a headache for Theresa May and for other people trying to figure out a plan going forward.

HJ: Northern Ireland was really a focus of continual tensions and problems in the 1970s and 1980s, so we think of it as the “time of troubles.” And then it ended in the 1990s essentially because the border with the Republic of Ireland disappears, and both Britain and Ireland are members of the European Union. There’s no need to have a border there. A lot of the economic activity is cross-border. There’s an enormous amount of commerce taking place. People are moving continually across the border. If the U.K. were to leave the European Union, it would presumably need external border controls, and so the border would have to be reintroduced and nobody, certainly in Northern Ireland, wants that to happen. But also nobody wants a customs border between Northern Ireland and the big island of Britain. So there’s an almost insoluble problem there. Theresa May’s government tried to punt that one, kick it down the road a bit by arguing that in the future, there may be technologies that allow for goods to be tracked and documented as they cross borders without any physical inspection taking place. It is obviously possible that that technology is developed in the future, but it doesn’t exist at the moment, and so the EU was insisting on some kind of regulation in case that technology isn’t introduced, and that would border controls, and then it’s easy I think for many people if they’re worried about the future and people still remember, obviously, the ’70s and ’80s, they think even the small-scale controls on the border can rapidly become something more serious. You just have to imagine the scenario where somebody attacks one of these casual inspection posts and then you say “well, you need really a more fortified unit,” and then you go back to a full military frontier.

AW: You have some friends on both sides of the political spectrum, I believe, who live in the U.K. and who voted in favor of leaving the European Union back in 2016, and they’re still standing by that decision today. What are some of their big reasons for voting in favor of Brexit?

HJ: Well, it’s an interesting story. They’re not kind of naïve populists who are doing this because they dislike Polish immigrants. They’re people who take the argument about British sovereignty very, very seriously, and so it’s actually kind of in a way a coincidence, two of the world’s foremost experts on the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who in a sense is actually the first modern theorist of Sovereignty, Noel Malcolm in Oxford and Richard Tuck, who was in Cambridge for a long time but is now in the other Cambridge. From a more traditional standpoint, Malcolm, and from a more radical standpoint, Tuck, are both in favor of Brexit because it gives the British people the capacity to choose its own future, its own destiny, and so they think that that’s what democracy means. And it’s undoubtedly true that what Britain has just done is, in a sense, an exercise in sovereignty, but what it’s just experiencing is a waking up to the fact that you don’t get an awful lot just by proclaiming and insisting on your sovereignty.

AW: And what does the U.K. stand to lose if it does indeed leave the European Union?

HJ: The hope of Brexit is that they will conclude many, many trade arrangements, agreements with other countries including the United States, and that Britain will develop into a more open and more global economy. But so far, there’s been very little in the way of negotiation of new trade arrangements, and so what the U.K. risks is that it will lose a lot in trade with Europe or that it will become much more difficult, and whether there will be inspections and rules of origin procedures. It will lose a lot there without gaining very much in trade with the rest of the world. And there’s obviously, I think with any analysis of trade, there’s a geographical determinant of this, and that trade tends to be more the closer you are to another country, so we trade a lot with Canada. And similarly, the U.K. really does do a lot of trade with the European Union, and it’s not easily going to find trading partners in Asia, or South America, or Africa to replace the European Union.

AW: And in terms of leadership for Britain going forward, how do you see that playing out over the next few months? Do you think Theresa May will still be prime minister after this whole thing is said and done?

HJ: Theresa May has utterly discredited herself. The negotiations have been conducted in such a casual, amateurish, obstinate, unconsulting way that she’s lost credibility in Europe, in Britain, in Parliament, and even in her own cabinet. So there’s I think a universal consensus such that the future of the U.K. isn’t with Theresa May’s leadership.

AW: And you talked a little bit about implications for trade — how else might we, in the United States, be affected be whatever ultimately happens with this decision?

HJ: I’m not sure that the immediate impact on the United States will be very great. One of the things that sometimes was floated was that there would be a big, new trade arrangement between the United States and the U.K., and the U.K. would get a better access to the American market. I’m not sure quite what an improvement that would be because the tariffs on many, many EU goods are very low. We have a lot of uncertainty in the whole international trading system. We don’t know yet whether the president is going to push through tariffs on European cars. But even that is not going to really affect Britain all that much because the proportion of the European automobile production that takes place in the U.K. and that is then exported to the United States is very, very low.

AW: Is there a role for the U.S. to play in this situation?

HJ: The Obama administration was very worried about Brexit, and the president, President Obama, tried to influence the vote. He made a big speech in London. It probably didn’t have any impact. It may well have been counterproductive in that one of the big stories of people who want Brexit is that they don’t want to be told by other people what to be doing. So they don’t want to be told by Brussels; they don’t want to be told by the German government; they don’t want to be told by the French president; but they don’t want to be told by the American president either. President Trump has taken a very different line, and seems to be a big cheerleader of Brexit. He welcomed — one of the first things he did immediately after the election in November 2016 was to welcome some of this group of Brexit campaigners to Trump Tower in New York. And there’s a sense that I think many Europeans have from the president’s pronouncements that President Trump wants to destroy the European Union and thinks that Brexit is a way of levering that destruction. That’s a miscalculation because what’s happening is clearly that the process of Brexit is making other European countries feel that they’re more tied and it’s that they’re relying more on their ties to be a European Union. So Brexit is not going to make the European Union weaker; it’s going to make it stronger. So I think that calculation is — if that is the calculation of Donald Trump is a miscalculation.

AW: And what do you personally think would be the best possible outcome for Britain at this point when it comes to the Brexit decision?

HJ: Personally, from the point of view of the U.K., obviously the best choice would be to say that this was just a colossal mistake and to try to revoke Article 50 and continue as a member of the European Union, because that’s also a way I think of actually effectively asserting British power in the context of Europe in a world that is changing and in a world that’s quite unstable. I’m not sure that that’s likely to happen, though, so I think the next best option is some kind of soft Brexit option, and that’s the one that I think will, at the moment at least, appear to be the most likely one to be realized.

AW: Well, I’m sure I speak for many people in the US and worldwide when I say that I’ll be following the decisions made by Britain over the next few weeks with great interest. So thank you so much for coming in today, Harold, to tell us more what we might expect going forward.

HJ: Thank you so much, Allie.