The UK is set to leave the EU in March next year, but many of the key issues remain unresolved and there is now perceived to be a very real prospect of the country leaving without a deal in place. For Helmut K Anheier, the answer is not a second referendum given another vote would do little to resolve the division that currently exists in the UK over Brexit. Rather, he proposes a moratorium on Brexit, lasting up to five years, which would allow both the UK and the EU to fully get to grips with the process.
“Ungovernability” is a term not usually synonymous with the well-oiled administrative machinery of the UK state. In governance capacity rankings, it is usually among the world’s top ten, alongside Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Australia. But with a mere eight months to go before Brexit, the colossal task of rolling back 45 years of European integration, building new partnerships still both contested and unclear, and the attendant political uncertainty are straining capacities at Whitehall. The recent turmoil of resignations over the Prime Minister’s soft-Brexit “Chequers” deal is just the latest symptom, and the growing battle about the government´s White Paper another.
Popularised by social scientists like Samuel Huntington and Jürgen Habermas to describe over-stretched welfare states, ungovernability happens when institutions invite problems that become impossible to process in an orderly and routinised way. This self-generated demand overload is precisely the plight arising from current Brexit negotiations.
Since the ill-fated 2016 referendum, things have not gone well. The UK and Europe now face a precarious, even dangerous, situation in unknown territory. The UK is in a deep political crisis, unable to steer the course, and a Brexit gone wrong will be disastrous for all. As any sensible bureaucrat can see, “keep calm and carry on” is not the mantra to follow right now. Instead, the EU and its member states must reach out to the United Kingdom with an offer: let´s put a moratorium on the current Brexit process. Let´s review where we are, what´s gone wrong, and how we can put things right. There is nothing sacred about 30 March 2019, and it can be changed.
The peculiar ways of British governance
Ever since Article 50 was invoked, the UK’s negotiating position has become ever more constricted and its machinery ever more overloaded. But don’t blame Brussels and the hardline stance of its chief negotiator Michel Barnier. Instead, look to the peculiar ways of British governance: a parliamentary authority that invites continued bickering between a pro-Brexit government and a pro-remain parliament; the uncodified British constitution, which fails to elucidate which parliamentary majorities are required for major political decision like the Withdrawal Bill; and a tradition of internal party dissent and cross-bench deals that hamper unity and challenge the skill of any prime minister. These are stoking domestic uncertainty at a time when stability is sorely needed.
In essence, the UK has a divided public, divided parties, a divided government, and a civil service unsure of what to do before and after March. A political stalemate looms, with all the added unpredictability and implied injustices, such as the disproportionate influence of Northern Ireland’s pro-Brexit DUP in Theresa May’s government, which shows little regard for the country’s “remain” vote. A population highly affected by Brexit is thus disenfranchised, while continued peace in Northern Ireland depends on how the Irish border problem is solved or at least managed. In another twist, the only incentive for many senior members of the government to support the Chequers agreement and the White Paper is the fear of a Labour Prime Minister, Jeremy Corbyn. Not being able to win is now preferable to losing.
Emmanuel Macron, Theresa May and Angela Merkel, Credit: Number 10 (Crown Copyright)
An impossible deadline for disentanglement
For the administration, implementing the multitude of technical changes to disentangle the UK from EU rules and regulations will be impossible by mid-March. The Withdrawal Bill cannot handle the detail needed to unscramble 45 years of EU membership. This will leave many issues unresolved for some time – probably years – to come, and only uncertainty will prevail.
For the UK civil service, the issue is far greater than time pressure alone. It is the contestation that comes with ungovernability. As the sociologist Claus Offe once remarked, popular expectations, not efficiency considerations, decide what is ungovernable and what is not. The hard-Brexiteers want clear declarations of separation to prevent back-peddling and ambiguity once the country has left, while the soft-Brexiteers favour vague statements to keep options open.
This is the crux of ungovernability: normative components are a cog in the machinery of Whitehall, spreading uncertainty about what is accepted by whom and by when. The UK Exit department is in overdrive, but political directives are murky and shifting.
But why should the Commission care? The UK asked to leave, now faces a political mess, and is in denial about its prospects. Of course, this is a simplistic view, but the EU’s negotiating position is nonetheless correct: no country can leave the Union and end up better off outside than in. No country can cherry-pick and cut bilateral deals while still a member. At the same time, the EU should have a keen interest in mitigating the damage for all.
Interest wanes in the EU
It doesn’t help that the EU has moved on. Trump´s trade wars, illiberalism and nationalism have captured the public’s attention, and the people of Europe have accepted that the UK can and will leave. Cornish fisherman, Sunderland auto workers or City bankers are not among their concerns.
Positions have hardened. UK citizens, fed by an anti-European press, feel increasingly mistreated, even punished, by the EU. The Commission and popular opinion in Europe are increasingly indifferent and puzzled by what they see as Britain’s desire to have its cake and eat it too.
How can we handle such emotional responses amid growing nationalism and a persistent and deepening problem of ungovernability? In Britain, no major political reform effort other than Brexit has been undertaken for several years. Domestic politics are flagging and austerity measures continue – yet was it not the promise of more domestic spending that convinced many to vote “leave”? The country is entirely occupied, even paralysed, by Brexit, and has become increasingly self-centred. The danger is not that the UK and the EU will become strangers; more likely, they will become more like neighbours who misunderstand each other the more the gap between them widens.
The answer is certainly not a second referendum. It is not clear what this would achieve, as the country would remain divided, and, given the current domestic situation, this could invite even more political brinkmanship.
A five-year moratorium
A moratorium is one way forward, assuming the current UK government holds. If Brexit happens, let´s get it right. The EU should offer the UK a moratorium of up to five years, during which it will remain a member with full rights and obligations. The advantages are many. For one, it will span two UK governments, two EU Commissions, and two European Parliaments. This will bolster the legitimacy of the 2016 referendum, the process and the outcome. It will give businesses at least a medium-term perspective and allow for wiser investment decisions. It will give the millions of UK citizens living in mainland Europe and the millions of Europeans living in the UK the stability they need. And it will give the administrators and legal experts in Whitehall and Brussels the room they need to separate from each other in an orderly and routinised way.
It would also create an opportunity for honesty. The honesty to tell the British people, for example, that the promised funds for the NHS will never come, to help them understand that old-fashioned sovereignty comes at a price and requires sacrifice – economically, politically, culturally. They need time to prepare for a world that is not waiting for a “Global Britain,” and to understand that illiberal regimes and autocracies are all too eager to take advantage of a relatively isolated country.
On the flipside, Europeans need to hear that Brussels has frequently over-stepped its bounds and alienated many; that its technocratic approach to deeply political problems can threaten people´s identities, and that its ways and means, especially the democratically unchecked role of the European Court of Justice, continues to undermine the legitimacy of national parliaments.
Of course, many will question such a proposal. Hard Brexiteers will see it as way to undo Brexit by stealth – yet no majority in government and parliament backs them anyway. Soft Brexiteers will view the moratorium with suspicion on the same grounds but should soon realise the advantages a well-prepared Brexit could hold. The Commission may baulk at dragging the process out even longer, given its many other pressures, but should welcome a more depoliticised process and more measured pace.
Yet all parties should come to terms with an outcome that seems ever more likely: Brexit will have few winners but many losers in the UK as well as in Europe. No good has come of it so far, and any longer-term benefits are uncertain. The world has become a more hostile place since the referendum in 2016, and neither the UK nor the EU alone can make it better, and certainly not in haste.
This article gives the views of the author, not the position of LSE Brexit or the London School of Economics. This article first appeared on our sister site EUROPP – European Politics and Policy.
Helmut K. Anheier is a Professor of Sociology and President of the Hertie School of Governance, and a Visiting Professor at LSE IDEAS.
This sounds a sensible approach bearing in mind what we are up against – a divided nation, a government that doesn’t really believe in what it is dong, an opposition party that is in a similar place and a third party, that while probable (now at least) more in tune with public opinion than anyone goes almost unheard. It certainly highlights the outdated system of partisan politics we adhere to in this country, as well as the fact that it is beyond the combined wisdom of all our politicians to come up with an answer that is both right for the UK and well as uniting the country – in as far as it can be!
So a moratorium for a few years certainly, but ultimately the decision must be made by a peoples vote to get the best answer we can, and to unite as much of the country as possible.
I suspect that if you kick the issue 5 years into the future, then economic uncertainty will continue in the U.K. That of course could be the intention. It would hold U.K. growth back, and make it leaner and more competitive both domestically and internationally.
If we have another referendum which votes to stay in the EU, then the UK will not remain divided for long. Brexit voters are overwhelmingly in the older generations, and they are slowly but surely dying off, while younger voters are more in favour of the EU as we go down in age layers.
Actually I think it’s the other way round, the U.K. is aging, and by 2045 the number of older citizens will have grown considerably, whilst the number of young/working age will shrink.
We have had a vote and those that wished to leave were in the majority, therefore we do not need another vote.
The British press are mot unanimously “anti European” , there are some that are anti EU and some which are pro EU.
I would agree that our political processes, like our instruments of state (such as the Border Force) are not fir for purpose and some are downright bizarre, How can it be acceptable for an unelected House (the House of Lords) stuffed with political appointments, ex heads of industry, television personalities, those who have done favours for political parties and so on, to have any say whatsoever on how this country is run, legislation or our future etc. A moratorium where we and the Commission take stock sounds fine in practice but not if it leads to further freedom of movement and payments to the EU one minute past our due leaving date.
I don’t see the point of a moratorium if it allows the Conservative Party to continue with their present tactics of sending unworkable proposals to Brussels.
Only applying the legal deadliner will bring them to facing reality.
This referendum was badly flawed. It was created by Cameron to try and get votes back from UKIP – and unopposed by Labour for the same reason. Maybe a worthy objective, but it was poorly though through, badly designed and drafted with no thought given to what the consequences might be, whichever way the vote went. It was always predicted to be a very close run thing, and if nothing else it would have been better to say a minimum of 60% was needed to change the status quo. More than that though – there was never going to be a binary answer to this question. It should have provided for a second referendum once terms had been negotiated – did anyone have any idea what may come out of these negotiations, or even what they wanted to come put of them for that matter.
I voted leave, and now believe otherwise. I am not totally convinced by all the economic arguments from either side, but I do see severe dangers in a world effectively controlled by a Putin/Trump/Erdogan axis, which is very anti the EU or indeed any powerful wealthy block. We need to remain strong and united in the face of this threat.
So now is a time for real liberal democracies to come together in unity to oppose these threats. Hopefully it is not already too late with Poland and Hungary, as well as other EU member countries, voting for populist pro autocratic anti EU politicians in greater and greater numbers, despite the benefits they have had from the EU.
This calls for firstly the UK to remain members (and a forceful leading member at that), and secondly political/electoral reform across the whole of the EU. There will be much resistance to this – but without reform both in the UK and the EU will bring disaster for the world. I do not say this lightly – it is a real and present danger and this battle needs to be fought until the war against illiberal, autocratic, “Christian”, anti Muslim is won.
And you voted leave, don’t think so
I voted remain. I do not like the direction of travel of the EU nor its ultimate goal of a fully united Europe under one government – albeit ultimate goals are not necessarily achievable – but I understood 70% + (?) Of ‘young people’ wanted to remain so I guess I voted for the future they wanted.
I’m a Brexiteer who voted remain. Odd I suppose.
However, the vote was to leave and leave we must. A delay would merely incite unrest.
A ‘no deal’ Brexit if necessary regardless of the consequences. After all, as nobody has left before the consequences are unknown.
We must step into the unknown with fingers crossed without delay.
Crossed toes as well perhaps?
To delay would genuinely threaten our democracy.
Certainly the political atmosphere is going to get more fevered as the deadline next March approaches.
Also, the pro-Brexit press in the UK will increasingly talk about opponents “frustrating the will of the people”. They will point out that a new electoral cycle is about to begin in the EU, making it difficult to extend the deadline beyond March next year.
It is a pity the whole Brexit process is under the right-wing control of the Conservative Party and a right-wing media. Surely to give the process legitimacy there should be some form of “National Government” in the UK?
Some way must be found to reconcile the 16.1 million Remainers and 17.4 million Brexiters. It cannot be right for for a UK split 50/50 over links with the EU to be so summarily and speedily split from it’s partner of the last 45 years. It’s erstwhile partner (the EU27) is in no good shape itself, and will sorely miss the UK’s international links in the years to come.
We have had a vote, the leave brigade won.
No more words about we didn’t know what we voted for.
We had a second vote ( snap Election ) the only party that was standing on a “reverse the vote” platform was decimated.
It’s over! We’re leaving! If Europe don’t want our money, then great we will spend it elsewhere!
There is a huge queue of businesses wanting our money.
The only thing wrong about this whole mess is the interference of politicians who’s main interest is their own skin, and concentrate on frustrating the will of the people ahead of carrying out a democratic mandate given to them by their masters ( us ).
The negotiations are business negotiations, what on Earth are politicians interfering for?
They have demonstrated recently that they couldn’t organise a you know what in a brewery.
Put a business person in it will be sorted in no time.
I run a multi million pound business, I am used to business brinksmanship,
I have Just returned from Europe, Europe is in full blown panick over this.
Brinksmanship is part and parcel of negotiations, get used to it!
To suggest a moratorium would suggest that the remoaners would have more time to swing the public against leaving.
WTO rules would be a great result for the Uk.
This much ignored article that suggests the Whitehall anti brexit machine is filling us with stay propaganda.
I could believe that!
Isn’t it time we talked up our capability? just get on with it, there is little point in leaving sores untreated, just take the pain, Lance them and we can get on with life.
After 2008, we understood issues about the imbalances in global trade. The U.K. being a particularly bad example of such imbalances.
Mervyn spelled it out over the next few BoE inflation reports. The U.K. would have to import less, and export more. The standard of living in the U.K. would have to fall in comparison with other countries like China, where standards of living would rise. There could be no more domestic consumer driven recovery’s in the U.K. Bubble’s would have to be nipped in the bud quickly. The U.K. would have to become more internationally competitive. There would be a transfer of employment from domestic consumer retail business to other types of businesses. Profits would be limited in the wrong types of businesses to achieve this change.
In general Brexit (the process) has been instrumental in helping to achieving this transition. It’s a convenient ‘thing’ to point to and blame for the somewhat uncomfortable changes that the U.K. needs to make.
I honestly don’t think Brexit that important, because there was never much risk we would be leaving the single market or customs union. I think it’s usefulness to government has been to blame the UK’s changes required to achieve an economic transition, on Brexit, and also use it to scrap some bits of EU legislation that interfered with the UK’s ability to change.
Brexit – the process – has mainly served as focus to get the public to accept the changes necessary to achieve the changes laid out years ago by Mervyn.
The issue for me is just how long they want this process of change to continue in the U.K.? Depending on that, Brexit – the process – might be seen to have plenty of life left in it to help achieve these aims.