For our weekly ‘Ideas on Europe’ editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we welcome Nick Startin, from the University of Bath.
Next Tuesday, the 1st of February, it will be two years since the UK officially left the EU. A good moment for a ‘Brexit special’ this morning. But let me ask you a personal question first, Nick: did the Brexit vote back in 2016 come as a surprise to you?
I have to say in all honesty ‘no’.
I think I was one of the few academics working on the issue of Euroscepticism who alluded to the fact that a ‘no’ vote could well prevail if a referendum took place.
In 2015, I published an article in the International Political Science Review entitled ‘Have we reached a tipping point? The mainstreaming of Euroscepticism in the UK.’ Here, I argued that a vote to stay in the EU would be far from certain. Let me quote:
‘Backed by an overtly Eurosceptic tabloid press, which continues to focus on emotional and psychological identity factors, the ‘no’ campaign will certainly start any potential referendum campaign on the front foot’
I concluded that tabloid influence had left British citizens unable to weigh up the costs and benefits of EU membership in a rational and informed fashion. The article ended up being shortlisted for an academic prize in 2020, mainly, I think, because my predictions came true!
It seems you had a sense of the Brexit dynamic before it unfolded. Now, switching to the situation today, to what extent do you think Brexit has been a success for the UK?
I think what’s quite telling is that very few commentators in the UK are saying it’s been a positive experience for the country except, of course, the government, the conservative press, and some tabloid journalists!
The two dominant narratives are, at worst, that it has been an entirely negative experience so far, or, at best, that it’s too early to say. Even the hardest Eurosceptics are not sounding very convincing in terms of flagging up the positives as the UK economy stutters, no longer shielded by the Single Market.
In economic terms, Brexit has certainly been damaging! As of October last year, according to modelling by the London-based Centre for European Reform, U.K. trade with the EU was around 16% lower than it would have been had Britain stayed in the EU’s single market and customs union. And these figures are, if anything, probably over optimistic as the UK delayed introducing many of its post-Brexit border controls until this year.
The UK’s trade deal with the EU is likely to cause a 4% reduction in GDP. In terms of international trade deals designed to counteract this decline (which is very much part of Boris Johnson’s ‘Global Britain’ mantra) there has only been limited success. As yet, there hasn’t been a deal with the US. There has been a deal with Australia and terms have been agreed with New Zealand, but the economic gains of these are likely to be very limited and that’s before we take into consideration the environmental consequences! Don’t start me on that.
What about the geo-political consequences of Brexit?
Well here, again, Brexit has undoubtedly been problematic. If we take the UK’s closest two allies in geographical terms, France and Ireland, in both cases relations have never been at such a low ebb what with the Northern Ireland protocol and humanitarian, cross-channel migrant crisis.
Added to this, UK citizens are beginning to wake up to the realities of Brexit on a personal level as they no longer benefit from the Freedom of Movement, to not being able to renew their EHIC Health cards and to potentially no longer taking advantage of mobile phone roaming charges.
All this sounds very negative. Aren’t there any positives of Brexit for the UK?
In truth, no, I don’t really see any positive in the globalised world of the 21st century.
As a European Studies researcher in the UK, I wish that we had been more robust in collectively defending the importance and advantages of EU membership! As scholars and experts in the discipline nearly all of us could see the disadvantages of Brexit would clearly outweigh the advantages but we didn’t always articulate our expertise for fear of being labelled as impartial! Looking back, I think this is something, some of us regret.
The role of the academic in public debate, that’s a topic we’ll certainly come back to. Thank you very much, Nick, for sharing your retrospective analysis with us.
“Ideas on Europe” will be back next week, and we will welcome Carmen Perez Gonzalez, from the Universidad Carlos Tercero, in Madrid.