Brexit supporters must weigh their ideological beliefs against the economic reality of leaving the EU, Liam Glen writes on Britain’s ongoing political deadlock.
As of April 1, 2019, the UK Parliament has thrice rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal for leaving the European Union. As she considers the fourth attempt, it is clear that there is no consensus on the handling of Brexit. Suggestions that were once fringe, such as holding a second referendum to cancel Brexit altogether, now seem entirely possible.
A second referendum is what I have been rooting for ever since the British people first voted to leave the EU on June 23, 2016. While I do believe that staying in the EU is in Britain’s best interests, my investment has been more personal than ideological. I have lived in America my entire life, but I inherited British citizenship from my father, and I have always liked the idea of being an EU citizen. It is unlikely that I will ever decide to pack up and move to Belgium, Germany, or Finland, but it is always nice to have options.
Of course, those who live in Britain have a much greater stake in the issue than I do. Whether or not I end up having the benefits of EU citizenship does not greatly impact my future, but for millions of Britons, Brexit will shape their very livelihood.
The economic effects of Brexit are well-publicized. Organizations like the Bank of England model lower GDP growth depending on the nature of the deal, with the worst case scenario being a No Deal Brexit. This, in turn, would have far-reaching effects on factors such as wages and employment.
Specific losers include the Northern Irish, who can expect either a hard border with the Republic of Ireland that could reignite sectarian conflict or a “backstop” that would economically separate them from the rest of Britain. Younger Britons also suffer the most lost opportunity from lower economic growth and the loss of free movement in Europe.
With such dire drawbacks, one might assume that there is a balanced set of benefits from Brexit. Leading up to the referendum, the Leave campaign made bold promises. The £350 million a week spent on EU membership could instead fund the National Health Service. The country could take control of its borders, enact its own regulations, and sign trade deals that are in its own best interests.
However, very little has gone as planned. The £350 million claim ignores the direct and indirect economic benefits that Britain reaps from EU membership. Per PM May’s proposed deal, the UK would still be subject to the EU regulation and immigration regime during a transition period. Meanwhile, the future of trade is highly uncertain.
Fisheries serve as a case study for the disappointment of Brexit. The declining industry overwhelmingly voted Leave as a chance to escape the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy. Now, the group Fishing for Leave fiercely opposes May’s deal for failing to address their grievances and instead advocates for a No Deal Brexit. However, the research initiative UK in a Changing Europe reports that such a scenario would bring even greater problems for fisheries, such as harming their ability to export.
Ideology versus Pragmatism
If the current options leave nearly everyone worse off, why not at least hold a second referendum? This is an increasingly common viewpoint, but not everyone agrees. According to a YouGov poll earlier this year, Britons are split 42 to 41 percent on whether or not they support “a public vote on Britain’s future relationship with the rest of the European Union.”
Why so many people still support Brexit is a complex question of political psychology. After all, each person has their own set of motivations. No explanation can encapsulate every point of view, but it is possible to make generalizations.
The most common justifications for Brexit in popular discourse are ideational. Brexiteers hold up values such as national sovereignty and British identity, arguing that the UK should not be bound by rules made in Brussels.
For many, upholding these values is more important than avoiding the economic costs of Brexit. The newfound decision-making power from increased sovereignty or the inherent value of national pride outweighs a few years of low GDP growth. However, as the costs of leaving the EU mount up, especially in the possibility of a No Deal Brexit, supporters must seriously ask themselves whether it is worth it.
I could easily say that it is not, but doing so would be disingenuous. As someone who values cosmopolitanism and international cooperation more than national pride and sovereignty, canceling Brexit would be a win-win. For true believers in the ideals of Euroscepticism, the conflict of ideological beliefs against national wellbeing, especially the wellbeing of those who have more to lose from Brexit than themselves, is a moral dilemma that merits careful consideration.