Is Brexit really going to happen?
By Cassia Scott-Jones
Britain is already half way between its vote to leave the European Union and the date it will leave the pact, and it’s not clear exactly what will happen in the next 16 months.
The uncertainty is prompting doubts about the United Kingdom’s economic prospects, the country’s future relationship with the EU and who will lead the country if Prime Minister Theresa May stumbles.
British voters elected to leave the 27-nation bloc in a referendum on June 23 last year, and the departure date is set for March 29, 2019.
At the half-way juncture, the country remains deeply divided over the prospect of leaving the EU.
Recent polls show that the “Remain” camp — voters who would like Britain to stay in the Union — has gathered a bit of steam since May’s Conservatives won a snap election this summer.
Some surveys have shown that increasing numbers favor a “soft Brexit” — that is, retaining access to the EU’s single market even if it means some free movement of labor.
But any shift in sentiment has been very small and by no means an indication that Britons want to do a U-turn and abandon Brexit.
“The one and only safe conclusion we can draw is that Britain is divided about Brexit — and that has been the case ever since June 23rd last year,” according to Natcen social research institute.
The divorce is expected to be the largest strain on Britain’s economy in the next decade, and the effects are being felt. Earlier this month, the Bank of England decided to raise interest rates for the first time since before the last financial crisis, citing Brexit’s “noticeable impact” on the economic outlook.
“Uncertainties associated with Brexit are weighing on domestic activity, which has slowed even as global growth has risen significantly,” minutes from the central bank’s Monetary Policy Commission said. “Brexit-related constraints on investment and labour supply appear to be reinforcing the marked slowdown that has been increasingly evident in recent years.”
What kind of Brexit?
Despite shifting political winds and the persistent uncertainties relating to Brexit, U.S. investment bank Morgan Stanley put the odds of Britain reversing itself at only about one in 10.
May, who before the referendum favored remaining in the EU, has repeatedly pledged to respect the voters’ wishes. In a speech to her Conservative Party’s recent party conference, May repeated six times that “Brexit means Brexit.”
But what kind of Brexit?
In fact, the prime minister has been ambiguous, oscillating between vague references to a “hard” or “soft” Brexit.
May has said she still intends to form a “unique” and “deep and special relationship” with the EU. Many see this as an attempt to quash speculation the UK could adopt an economic model based on the EU’s relationship with either Norway or Canada.
The Norwegian model of full and unfettered access to the European Economic Area is seen as being too damaging to UK sovereignty and out of step with the Conservative Party’s Euro-skeptics.
A traditional free trade agreement similar to that that the EU recently negotiated with Canada would, according to May, represent “such a restriction on our mutual market access that it would benefit none of our economies.”
A third possibility has been floated: That Britain negotiate a trade deal with its single largest export market, the United States. U.S. President Donald Trump has shown considerable enthusiasm for a bilateral deal, but an agreement would require the approval of Congress, and the terms of tariff and non-tariff barriers often take years to hammer out.
Time is short.
What about the opposition Labour Party, which polls show could stand a chance of winning an election should it come before the Brexit deadline?
While Labour is traditionally more pro-EU than the Tories, nationalization of key industries — popular with large segments of the population — has been at the forefront of Labour’s agenda since the party lurched left when Jeremy Corbyn assumed leadership in 2015.
And Corbyn has warned Britons that staying in the EU single market and following EU rules could make it difficult for the government to invest in industry and protect jobs.
So time is short but the challenges many as Britain copes with the economic and political fallout from its fateful referendum.
(To read more News-Decoder stories on Brexit, click here.)
Cassia Scott-Jones is from Brighton, England and is in her second year of undergraduate studies at King’s College London, focusing on Political Science. She is particularly interested in the analysis of British politics and political strategy regarding public opinion. She hopes to pursue a career in Public Affairs and Marketing.