Professor Erik Jones, the director of European and Eurasian Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies, held a presentation titled “Brexit and the Disintegration of Europe” on Friday in Shriver Hall’s Clipper Room. The lecture touched on the complicated politics currently occurring in Great Britain.
Jones focused on four key points in his discussion of Brexit and its impact.
“The first is that direct democracy is a really terrible way to make decisions. It’s a horrible way to answer questions that don’t have a yes or no answer, and most questions don’t have a yes or no answer,” Jones said.
Brexit is one of these questions that fall under the gray area, Jones added. The British have limited options, many with undesirable results. Though the Oct. 31 deadline for a deal is approaching quickly, Jones emphasized that time is not the issue. The problem is that the Brexit scenario is entirely unprecedented.
“When you’re facing something unprecedented, you have to give yourself the luxury of being able to make a mistake, and unfortunately what we’ve discovered with the vote to leave the European Union is that there’s no modulation in that exercise,“ Jones said. “They voted to leave, but they had no idea what the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the rest of the European Union would look like, how it would be structured [and] what time would be required for that relationship to develop.”
Jones believed that another referendum is also unlikely to solve the problem.
“How are we going to explain to the people who won last time that they lose the next time around? What if we call a second referendum and nobody shows up to vote because they’re so disgusted.” Jones said. “And if they don’t vote, how can we make our results binding?”
His second point was that the political rhetoric surrounding Brexit has distorted the conversation. According to Jones, the Brexit question has split apart those who voted to leave and those who voted to stay, even on a personal level.
“I’ve talked to friends who’ve been in restaurants where in the middle of a conversation about leave and remain, the owner would come up and say, ‘Look, I’m a leave voter. This is a leave restaurant. If you believe in remain, you're not welcome here.’ And they got up and left,“ he said. “These divisions are deeply personal, and the conversations are very tense in an oddly polarizing way.”
However, Jones noted that many people are tired of hearing about Brexit at all. The Brexit conversation has been a prominent issue in the United Kingdom since January 2013 when former Conservative Party Prime Minister David Cameron delivered a speech in support of leaving the European Union (EU).
“It’s possible that a big part of the reason people voted to leave the European Union is because they’ve been having this conversation since 2013 when most people in the United Kingdom actually had more pressing personal issues they wanted to see debated,” Jones said.
Jones clarified for his third point that disintegration will not be integration in reverse, adding that Brexit is not only about ending British membership in the EU.
“It will extend to the disintegration of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and perhaps also of the union between England and Scotland that lies at the heart of the United Kingdom,” he said.
Jones extended this claim to the future of Northern Ireland. Geographically, Ireland’s land seemingly wraps around roughly half of Northern Ireland’s border. For this reason, the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland has 280 border crossings.
“They will suddenly have to be staffed because if Northern Ireland leaves the regulatory authority of the European Union, someone has to check that goods that pass from Northern Ireland to the Republic [of Ireland] meet the European Union’s regulatory requirements,“ he said. “[But] staffing the border between Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland creates tensions between the Catholic community and the Protestant community.”
Jones continued by discussing Brexit’s impact on manufacturing. He explained that the majority of the parts needed to manufacture cars in England come from EU member states. However, should Britain leave the EU, regulations will need to be placed at the border to monitor what comes in and out, making export and import far more difficult.
Factory owners, Jones said, would not bother maintaining a factory in the United Kingdom were these issues to become realized.
“We’ve already seen the exodus of direct foreign investment from the United Kingdom deflected onto other parts of the European continent. As a consequence, the British economy has slowed down dramatically and manufacturing in particular is suffering,“ he said. “This is why all of British industry is against the idea of leaving the European Union because any kind of regulatory divergence and any kind of friction at the border will result in a loss of their profitability and therefore their business.”
In closing, Jones argued that interdependence will cease to be an option for Britain and the EU.
While the peace of Britain and the prosperity of its economy is dependent on its collaboration with EU members, he argued, Great Britain and the rest of Europe do not see eye-to-eye on how they can continue to maintain their relationship after Britain leaves the EU.
“The rest of Europe’s vision is one within which the British never actually get to take back control. In other words, they never achieve the objective they set as the goal for disintegration,“ he said. “If the British succeed in getting their vision, though, then the problems in Northern Ireland will escalate, but so will the problems in Scotland because the Scottish people in their significant majority voted to remain.”
Despite the fear and uncertainty stemming from what Jones described as a wicked problem, he saw a silver lining in the situation.
In response to Brexit, large amounts of interdisciplinary research are being conducted by groups such as UK in a Changing Europe, a interdisciplinary think tank which aims to address the problems that may arise after Brexit and to come up with potential solutions.
“[It’s] the kind of ‘interdisciplinary’ that makes an international studies program attractive to students and important on the job market, the kind of ‘interdisciplinary’ we’re going to see redefining higher education in many respects,” he said.
Senior Federica Lupi, an Italian exchange student, hears Brexit discussed frequently in her home country.
“I thought it would be very cool to actually hear an American perspective in it, to see what grasp [Jones] has of what is happening back home,” Lupi said.
Like Lupi, senior exchange student Benedetta Piva is from Europe. She described the differences between the European perspective and the American perspective that Jones provided in his talk.
“In general they are not that different. We both think that this is something that can lead to something really bad. So I was glad to see that his perspective was the same,” she said.