Ten months to Brexit: All up in the Air

2 June 2018 – SGI news (Gütersloh)

Time-consuming negotiations with the European Union and deep divisions within the two leading parties are hampering Britain’s day-to-day politics.

Since last summer, British Government delegates have been negotiating with European Union officials in Brussels to navigate the Britain’s exit from the bloc. Discussions are already far behind schedule and only a few small agreements have been struck to date. It remains to be seen whether the two parties will even be able to strike a deal or whether Britain will end up with a so-called “hard” Brexit. Just one point is crystal clear: The British referendum has failed to deliver a sense of conclusion: Britain’s decades-old dispute about Britain’s place within Europe continues to starkly divide public opinion.

From a democratic perspective, the referendum process was deeply dubious as voters were not given the opportunity to make their decision based on neutral information. Experts in Britain and beyond all predicted leaving the union would make an economic decline largely unavoidable, a fact which was consistently played down in the run-up to the ballot. Instead, pledges of improved economic fortunes circulated; promises which have thus far proved to be empty. But it has to be acknowledged that public opinion in Britain, in general, remains unchanged since the referendum. The exit from the European Union is widely accepted as the necessary outcome of a democratic vote. That is one point that people largely agree on.

Brexit slows government business

But the task of leaving the EU continues to overshadow Great Britain. This is clearly signaled by the fact that most of the state apparatus is focused on dealing with the issue, leaving little space for other topics. Like a fire which absorbs all the oxygen, the upcoming Brexit is distracting officials from other key issues for the future, albeit the shortage of affordable flats or the battle against the widening regional inequality, which afflicts the north of the country in particular.

Meanwhile, even long established state practices have fallen victim to the highly politicized dispute on how Brexit should be carried out, denting the quality of governance overall. The British government was a trailblazer in introducing so-called “regulatory impact assessments,” which systematically analyze the economic and social consequences of planned law changes. These aim to facilitate rational discussions on pending reforms and to ease the introduction of any new measures. But there has been no systematic probe or analysis into the likely impact of Brexit, even though leaving the European bloc is probably the biggest shift the country will undergo in decades and will affect the entire nation.

The minister responsible for overseeing Brexit, David Davis, even had to admit before a parliamentary committee that his ministry had failed to estimate the implications of Brexit for various economic sectors, despite statements to the contrary. When these figures were later hastily submitted after a parliamentary resolution, some alleged that some information was directly lifted from the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia.

Tactics instead of competence

Studies such as the Bertelsmann Foundation’s Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI), have shown how Britain's system of government has always been comparatively adept at using academic expertise to inform political administrative decisions. The idea of ​​systematically presenting and weighing up political projects in a "White Paper" originated in Great Britain and was later adopted by many other states. For example, ten months before the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, the Scottish government published a 670-page document entitled "Scotland's Future," which provided details of how the separation would be implemented in the event of a “yes” vote.

That meant that the voters had a concrete notion about the plans and their plausibility, enabling them to make an informed vote. In the case of Brexit, however, there has been no such document, not even in the aftermath of the vote. Nor have there been any government-appointed commissions of experts to predict future scenarios and assess the likely impacts for the country. In 2017 the SGI Country Report for the U.K. concluded: "The referendum result has drawn attention to shortcomings in governance, not least the inadequate thinking-through of so momentous a decision and the lack of planning for a vote to leave.“

At first glance, this lack of preparation stands in staunch opposition to the British reputation for pragmatism and level-headed competence. On closer inspection, however, this bucking of the national stereotype can be explained by the ongoing political difficulties weighing on the government of Prime Minister Theresa May. It is not just the whole country, which is polarized by Brexit, but also the ruling Conservative Party. Neither the pro-Brexit chorus around Foreign Minister Boris Johnson and the leading eurosceptic Jacob Rees-Mogg nor the former remain advocates Chancellor Philip Hammond and Theresa May have the upper hand.

Instead they are sitting in wait, poised to pounce on any tactical advantages to reinforce their respective positions. For some, this boils down to making the most decisive split with the EU as possible, while others seek a solution which will end membership of the bloc while causing the least disruption to the national economy. Normally such deep divides could be expected to spark new elections and even a change of government. In fact, Prime Minister May’s bid to strengthen her mandate via a new vote backfired in the summer of 2017. Instead, she lost her slim majority and has since been dependent on the support of Northern Ireland's splinter party DUP.

Dysfunctional party system

Meanwhile, a change of government would probably do little to clarify the situation as the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn is also in disarray regarding its Brexit stance. So why does the long-standing British party system no longer seem to function? The diagnosis involves the fact that the gap between the parties no longer reflects society’s main divisions. However, as the British majority voting system tends to protect the existing parties and impede the formation of new groupings, it is unlikely that this situation will change soon.

For this reason, it looks like Brexit is veering towards a disappointing outcome. After all, a government that is internally split on basic issues will not be a strong negotiating partner for the EU. Meanwhile, the expectations fuelled by Brexit advocates are unlikely to materialize, as it looks unlikely that Britain will completely pull out of EU structures. Economic disadvantages are likely to hurt, especially in the least developed regions. Therefore there is the risk that Britain will come out of the Brexit saga looking even less united than it was in the first place.

Translated from the English by Jess Smee

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