MAI: Brexit will test Great Britain’s allegiance to democracy


Column: Beneath the Surface

In 2013, while giving a speech advocating for a new treaty with the European Union (EU), former British Prime Minister David Cameron offered the British a chance to determine the future of their country when he said, “And when we have negotiated that new settlement, we will give the British people a referendum with a very simple in or out choice. To stay in the EU on these new terms, or come out altogether. It will be an in-out referendum”.

On June 23, 2016, the United Kingdom (UK) held a referendum on whether to remain in the EU. Cameron had made clear what a referendum on the “European question” would look like. 

Either the UK would adopt a new EU treaty, or cease to be a member of the union altogether. The next day, the results indicated that a majority of British people, 52% to be exact, had voted to leave the EU. Now, it was up to Parliament to carry out the will of the people and deliver “Brexit.” 

After Cameron’s resignation, former Prime Minister Theresa May assured the public that she understood her job was to deliver Brexit. While she herself had voted to “remain,” May famously declared that “Brexit means Brexit and we’re going to make a success of it”. 

On March 29, 2017, May invoked Article 50 of the Treaty of the EU. Article 50 is a political procedure that announces a member state’s desire to withdraw from the EU. 

The invoking state has two years to negotiate a “divorce deal” from the EU, though the deadline may be extended via a vote in the European Council, and no deal is necessary for a member state to withdraw. The reason departing members are given a chance to make a deal is to soften any short term economic pain and minimize disruptions to business activity. 

Parliamentarians have pushed for a “soft Brexit,” or a withdrawal deal ensuring that the UK would follow all of the rules, regulations and tariff requirements of the EU without actually being a member. A soft Brexit would essentially render the UK a non-voting member of the EU and prevent it from making independent trade deals with other countries. 

While the political establishment favors a soft Brexit, it would not be in line with what Cameron promised the British people if they chose to leave the EU. 

If the UK decided to leave the EU without a deal, or what is known as a “hard Brexit,” this would mean that the UK is immediately liberated from all EU business regulations and free to pursue an economic agenda as determined by the British people through its parliamentary process. 

More importantly, a hard Brexit would grant the British people what they voted for. This would disrupt business activity in the short term, but given the EU’s restrictive trade policy and burdensome regulations, a complete and total break from Brussels would give the UK a chance to open up its markets and establish bilateral trade deals that would prove immensely beneficial in the long term.

Before the March 29 deadline, in a final move of political desperation, May offered to resign as prime minister in exchange for Parliament’s approval of her third Brexit proposal. Her willingness to sacrifice the prime ministership did not impress her colleagues who, for the third time, rejected her withdrawal agreement. 

Following this effort, the EU agreed to extend the withdrawal date to Oct. 31. 

On June 7, as a result of her failure to deliver Brexit and facing mounting opposition in Parliament, May resigned from her position as prime minister. May’s ineptitude on the Brexit issue can be chalked up to her unwillingness to leave without a deal. 

Unfortunately, as new Prime Minister Boris Johnson has found out, this unwillingness runs rampant in Parliament.

While Johnson would prefer to leave the EU with a deal, his conviction to deliver Brexit with or without one was what got him elected. His first move was to suspend Parliament in order to prevent it from passing legislation blocking a no-deal Brexit on Oct. 31. 

But the UK Supreme Court ruled Johnson’s move unlawful and Parliament passed the Benn Act, which mandates that, unless he comes up with a soft Brexit deal, Johnson will be forced by law to ask the EU to extend the deadline to Jan. 31, 2020. 

This is a deliberate effort to undo the results of a free and fair democratic process through legislation designed to force an arrangement in which the UK remains under the rules and regulations of the EU. The widespread view of the political establishment is that Brexit was a mistake. 

In their view, it is up to them to correct the popular will of the people by stalling for time with a half-baked deal and forcing a second referendum that would overturn the results of the first. In this, they have completely undermined and disenfranchised the 17.4 million people who partook in a democratic exercise with the expectation that their vote to leave the EU would be respected. 

In the coming weeks, the world will find out if Parliament will respect the people’s vote, for Brexit has now become a referendum on the legitimacy of British democracy itself. 

Matthew Mai is a sophomore in the School of Arts and Sciences majoring in public policy. His column, "Beneath the surface" runs on alternate Thursdays.

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