WWS Reacts

WWS Reacts: The Brexit Plan Was Defeated. What’s Next?

Jan 16, 2019
B. Rose Kelly
Woodrow Wilson School

In a dramatic vote, Parliament said no to Britain Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan for leaving the European Union. Called one of the worst parliamentary defeats in modern times, the 432 to 202 vote highlights Britain’s fractured government.

We discussed the vote and implications with Harold James, the Claude and Lore Kelly Professor in European Studies and a professor of history and international affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. James, co-director of the the Program in Contemporary European Politics and Society, studies economic and financial history and modern European history.

Q. What's your reaction to the Brexit plan defeat and the vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Theresa May?

James: The defeat of the government’s Brexit proposal was entirely predictable. The hardline ‘Brexiteers’ in the Conservative Party disliked the remaining ties to the European Union (EU), but also feared the possibility of the imposition of a hard frontier between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. As I suspected, Theresa May survived the no confidence vote brought by Labour, because the Democratic Unionists (from Northern Ireland) and the Conservative Members of Parliament do not want a Labour government.

Q. Britain is 10 weeks away from leaving the bloc. Journalists and politicians are debating what will unfold in the coming weeks. In your opinion, which outcome is most likely?

James: The most likely option in my view would be a middle-road consensus about extending the negotiating period under Article 50, to which all 27 member countries of the EU would need to give their consent. In this period, there would then be an agreement on an arrangement similar to Norway’s in which many aspects of EU membership would in practice continue, but in which the United Kingdom (U.K.) would have no say in EU decisions and no representation in the European Parliament. 

Other possible outcomes would be a second referendum, which is problematic, as I outline below, or also a really bold change of position from Mrs. May and a complete reversal of Brexit. But for that to happen, Europeans would need to be convinced that this British on-off drama is not going to be constantly replayed, like a version of the relationship of the late Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

Q. Do you think it's possible for Mrs. May to make a bold gesture to remain in power?

James: The really bold gesture would be for Mrs. May to say: “The Brexit vote was a terrible mistake. The result of a campaign like that of the 2016 presidential election that was overshadowed by intransparent foreign influences, and we know more today about the costs and complexity of exiting the EU. So, my [May’s] judgment is that we should not do that, but rather commit to making Europe work in a world that is more and more uncertain and unpredictable.”

But I do not believe May is capable of that degree of boldness or vision.

Q. It's possible for Britain to leave with no deal, which some are calling "the nuclear option." Could this happen? What would it mean?

James: It is possible, and it’s what the Brexiteers in the Conservative Party and in parliament want, but it does not have a majority in parliament. Mrs. May has been using the fear of hard or no-deal Brexit to try to push members of Parliament to back her package, but that strategy has now failed completely. So, if there is a debate and a vote on “No Deal Brexit,” members of Parliament would reject it. In consequence, this seems an unlikely but costly option, although we can’t really know what the medium or longer term costs would be. The immediate effect however would be highly disruptive, and would give a substantial shock to an already fragile world economy.

Q. What's the economic fall-out from all of this? How might it affect stability in the U.S. and global economy?

James: The “No Deal Brexit” would send an immediate shock; the other versions would encourage Europeans and act as a stabilizer.

Q. Roger Cohen makes a case in The New York Times today for a second vote on the referendum. What are the chances of that? What are the pros and the cons of such an action?

James: The chances of a second referendum are also increasing, although I think many people recognize that it would be a very polarizing and divisive process, and the problem is that even if there was a narrow “remain” vote, Europeans would rightly feel unsure whether the whole process might not be repeated again. The more people reflect on the events since Former Prime Minister David Cameron’s promise of a Brexit referendum, the more they see that referenda do not fit at all with the British constitutional tradition, which is of representative democracy. Members of parliament have a duty to make reasoned and considered choices on complex issues; that cannot easily be put in the simple yes or no terms of a referendum or a plebiscite. Indeed, plebiscites used to be considered the instrument of autocrats and dictators. Statesman Edmund Burke put the point very famously: “If the local constituent should have an interest, or should form an hasty opinion, evidently opposite to the real good of the rest of the community, the member for that place ought to be as far, as any other, from any endeavour to give it effect.”

WWS Reacts is a series of interviews with Woodrow Wilson School experts addressing current events.