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Exit from Brexit: “Great Britain would have to file an application for re-entry to the EU”

Current debates on Great Britains’s Brexit from the EU are not only heating up on a European level but also in Great Britain itself. One issue of many is a new referendum on the “exit from Brexit”. We have talked to the political scientist Prof. Dr. Stefan Schieren about Great Britain’s perspectives and options in the Brexit debate.

Discussions around Great Britain’s exit from the EU have been ongoing since last June after a narrow majority of Britons had voted for a Brexit. Those in favor of the Brexit brought forward arguments such as cost saving – of money which to date flowed into the EU budget – or more independence on the global political stage. Are these arguments still valid two years later? 

No, these arguments are neither valid today, nor have they been valid back then when the referendum was held. The alleged 350 million pounds a week that could be used for the British national health system after an exit from the European Union were just an untrue figure. Quite the contrary: Certainly, restructuring their economy entirely because it has to date been dependent on EU products would cost Great Britain a lot of money and jobs – which can again lead to political and social instability. But also the idea of regaining the former status of a world power is an illusion which is not new, especially in conservative circles. I think that with a growing number of people in Great Britain, there is a growing realization that being part of the EU means losing independence on the one hand but at the same time gaining influence on transnational treaties. In a world in which China, the USA and Russia will be fierce political and economic competitors in future, a nation with 50 million inhabitants is likely to have much less influence than a country operating within a collective of 500 million inhabitants. However, it should be noted that many points of criticism against the EU raised by Great Britain now and then – for example the strong position of the European Court of Justice, the lack of transparency in many processes and the repeatedly criticized democratic deficit – were rightly mentioned. But in my view, Brexit was the wrong answer.

Was the result of the referendum an indication for a division which was already present in Great Britain’s society back then or did it just develop after the Brexit vote?

The divisions were already present in the country before the referendum. They have been visible ever since Margaret Thatcher held office – the division between Northern England (influenced by coal mining and shipping industry) and the South, between London and the rest of England but also between the Scottish and Welsh regions and the heartland. The Brexit referendum, however, has not only emphasized such divisions but also deepened them. Let’s take Scotland as an example: They voted to stay part of the United Kingdom in 2014. The decision of remaining part of Great Britain was also made in view of the argument brought forward by the British government that Scotland would also lose its EU membership when splitting off. And it was only two years later when this government declared – also for Scotland, by the way – that they were withdrawing from the EU; despite the fact that it was precisely the majority of this part of the country which voted for staying in the EU in the Brexit referendum. From a Scottish perspective, obviously, the question arises as to how credible politics of the central government really are. In Northern Ireland, the situation is particularly precarious: If a hard border was to be re-established between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, it cannot be ruled out that this region will be struck by violent clashes again. And this would be too high a price to pay for Brexit.

If we take a look back at the negotiations to this date: What are the core issues which make a Brexit complicated?

Let’s stay in Northern Ireland here: Every agreements needs to be approved by all member states in Brussels. In my view, there is no doubt that the Irish would not agree to a treaty stipulating a hard border running through their country. On the other hand, London will not be willing to agree to a special regulation on the Irish border issue. At the moment, the situation seems insoluble. And there is also the so-called Chequers Plan introduced by Prime Minister Theresa May in accordance with which free trade of goods between the European continent and the island shall still be possible while the regulation on free movement of EU citizens to Great Britain will be abolished. Furthermore, Great Britain intends to focus on new, own approaches in the service sector, e.g. in the banking sector – which is perceived as cherry picking in Brussels’ eyes. The main concern is that all this could potentially aggravate the EU’s centrifugal forces by other member states jumping on the bandwagon and requesting special regulations for them as well.

Prime Minister May is under immense pressure from Brexit hardliners within the Conservative Party and only has a frail majority in parliament which has to approve the negotiation result. At the same time, the opposition Labour Party rules out their agreement to May’s Brexit plans. Which perspectives are still in favor of sticking to the Brexit plans – or how realistic would a new referendum on the question be?

In the public discussion, there is one aspect which is given far too little consideration but which is very interesting from a legal perspective: Is an exit from Brexit even possible under European Law? Although Great Britain’s exit has not been implemented yet, one stance is that the declaration of exit already irreversibly initiated the whole process. Currently, there is no regulation as to how a withdrawal from the declaration of exit could be effected. Some experts say that whatever is not regulated can be clearly resolved by a treaty. Others are of the opinion that no regulation may be laid down outside the scope of the European Treaties. One thing is certain: Withdrawing from Brexit will require the consent of all member states. Whether there is great willingness among them at least raises a doubt. Otherwise, this would open the doors for every member to try out the British way themselves. Even if there was a second referendum – the result of which cannot be anticipated with absolute certainty at this date – in which UK citizens decided to stay in the EU, I feel that Great Britain would then have to submit a formal application for re-entry. This again would lead to the country losing the privileges it has fought so hard for.

Interview: Constantin Schulte Strathaus

Information on interviewee: The historian and political scientist Prof. Dr. Stefan Schieren is Dean of the Faculty of Social Work at the KU. His research focuses on state and politics in Great Britain, European and national social policy and local politics. He is a member of the board at the Prinz-Albert-Gesellschaft, an association supporting research on scientific, cultural and political aspects of German-UK relations. Furthermore, Schieren is a member of the German Association for British Studies.