EU Exit Crisis Worsens: Johnson’s Options Threaten the Unity of the British
By Dr. Nehad Khanfar
Translated from Arabic by the Centre for Arab Progress
The British Referendum from 2016 has imposed political ramifications that were not taken into account by the decision makers. The organization for the referendum came in with the intent of weakening the prospects of the right wing extremists from using their ambiguous relationship with the EU to attract the British voter. The referendum results came in as a surprise for the conservative party leadership, who expected the vote results to be about staying in the EU. In lieu of this reality, the agendas for the exit and its impact on the EU has dominated the political scene in Britain. Currently, most of the options for dealing with the crisis have turned into a political and economic nuisance that is pressing hard on all aspects of life in Britain.
The British political establishment has been facing a deep crisis since the referendum on whether Britain should leave or stay in the European Union since 2016. A crisis that toppled two Conservative Prime Ministers; one is David Cameron who resigned after the British vote to leave the EU despite the slight difference that favored the supporters. The second is the overthrowing of Theresa May, who took over immediately after Cameron, and promised to fulfill the British voter’s exit demands. Theresa May conducted the negotiations with the European Union in an attempt to exit the EU through an agreed arrangement, to mitigate the negative effects that may result from the exit without agreement, including the threat on the unity of the British union.
Theresa May has failed in achieving an agreement that pleases the members of the British Parliament, especially those who voted against her proposals again and again. The ones who participated in the rejection of the proposal included members of all political parties represented in the British parliament, including her own party; the conservative ruling party. This lead to worsening the crisis towards lack of political and economic stability, which impacted the legal status of foreign individuals and institutions operating in Britain or the British ones operating in the EU. Uncertainty was evident on all levels especially in the business sector, which reflected clearly on the historic decline of the value of the British Pound. Subsequently, there were multiple announcements from many of the European and international companies of their intention to transfer their economic activities outside the country. This resulted in another set of pressures on the Prime Minister especially from her own party members to resign, and there were calls for new leadership for the party in order to move the stagnation and determine the issue of exiting the EU.
However, the opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn also suffered from divisions among the party bases and some of its leadership over staying or exiting the EU. At the same time, the differences seem less severe from those at the ruling Conservative Party, who enjoy a majority at the Parliament as a result of the early elections run by Theresa May. This has weakened the position of her government and has strengthened the position of the Labour Party at Parliament. Furthermore, it has added a new asset for the popularity of Corbyn, especially in terms of the earned confidence of the British voter. Additionally, it resulted in removing the doubts over his eligibility to remain as the Labour Party leader and increased his chances of leading the government.
These circumstances prompted Theresa May to resign from her position of leading the Conservative Party and government, which again sparked controversy over the issue of exiting the EU. This was especially significant given that the majority of the Conservative Party supported the exit from EU even without having agreements, and it has had a direct impact on elections in selecting the new leadership for the party. Consequently, this is when Boris Johnson took the lead in the internal election race and outperformed all his rivals by large margins, given his campaign targeting voters to focus on exiting the EU without agreement. After Johnson’s victory and assuming the premiership, he formed a ministerial team of ultra-advocates for leaving the EU, and it was followed by repeated announcements about preparing special committees for a final exit from the EU.
The question now is, does Johnson intend to leave the EU even without an agreement? Or is he trying to signal this to improve the terms of negotiations with the EU in order to reach a better agreement than signed by Theresa May, which was rejected in parliament? And the most important question is, can Johnson get out of the union without agreement even if he wants to? What options does he have to get out of this crisis that is leading Britain to a continuing state of uncertainty?
According to observers, it is evident that waving a non-agreement is nothing but a negotiation strategy used by Johnson in order to provoke the European Union’s apprehension. It is a desperate attempt to pressure the EU to open the signed agreement with Theresa May in order to improve the terms of the agreement. In return, Johnson can earn Parliament and his internal Party’s approval in terms of his leadership, which is all about achieving an exit from the union. Therefore, this showcases his ability to go to the general election and empower his weak and swinging majority.
At the same time, this option is certainly implausible given the clear and decisive European stance over not negotiating the Theresa May agreement. Hence, luring in new European concessions with a majority from the EU leadership is pretty difficult.
Upheaval Threatening British Union
The dilemma of Johnson’s project to proceed with an exit from the EU without agreement, in practical terms means the dismantling of the constitutional and geographical unity of the United Kingdom. Given that the exit without agreement requires the establishment of clear border points between England and the Northern Ireland Union. Hence, currently there is an open border with the Republic of Ireland which means that all the advantages related to trade, individuals, customs and other benefits gained as being a part of the European Union.
The EU insists on a clear separation between Ireland and England in the event of Brexit, because it will be transformed into another country and is not entitled to enjoy the privileges enjoyed by the rest of the EU as if it did not leave it. In case of placing border points between Ireland and England, it will create a constitutional crisis between the components of the United Kingdom. Especially that both countries will have to treat each other as separate countries, which in turn would threaten the “Good Friday Agreement” that ended the conflict in Ireland. Furthermore, it is stipulated that Northern Ireland will be part of Britain and that will not change that no matter how the situation changes. It is noteworthy that more than 90 percent of Irish voters voted to stay in the EU, creating a negative public opinion against Johnson’s move to leave the EU, especially without an agreement.
The situation is mirrored in Scotland, where a large majority voted to stay in the Union. Their view is that the exit is a bad choice for all the government factions, specifically in terms of its economic situation and the rest of the joint projects with the EU countries, most importantly the ones related to higher education and research initiatives. Leaving without agreement will motivate the political parties there, especially the ruling Scottish National Party, to demand a new referendum for independence from Britain. In addition, members of the British parliament, including a good number of Johnson’s own party, are vowing to halt any effort to get out without an agreement and, of course, have the constitutional tools to do so. If Johnson insists on that, the parliament can withhold confidence, leading to early elections, in which the latest opinion polls indicate that he is more likely to lose than win. This option can easily lead to political suicide and the culmination of his prime ministerial life.
Naturally, Johnson and his party would not accept to be responsible for demolishing the United Kingdom or to place it in a constitutional crisis that could hardly be resolved for many years to come. Moreover, it could also result in an unaccounted for economic crisis after a decade of austerity from conservative rule. Once again this puts Johnson in the face of a historic crisis in the political scene, and a threat for the future of Britain as a super power dominating the world for the past two centuries.
Early Election or New Referendum
The observers believe that Johnson does not favour calling for early elections any time soon, especially given that the Labour party is surpassing the conservative party in most of the opinion polls. For implementing an election would be a gamble towards losing his position. This was apparent very recently, when the Conservatives lost two by-elections in two parliamentary seats historically affiliated to the party. What is also noteworthy is that these two areas voted in the 2016 referendum by a large majority in favour of Brexit. Both seats went in favour of the Liberal Democrats, the party campaigning to stay in the EU despite the referendum results.
This result is an indication of the gradual reversal in the mood of the British voter in terms of leaving or staying in the European Union compared to 2016. Additionally, it implies the breaking of the right-wing populist wave that led to the exit of the European Union. This conclusion is also based on the resounding loss of the Brexit party, which adopts a far-right agenda headed by the restoration of national sovereignty, anti-immigration and restriction of movement with the rest of the EU.
An in-depth reading of Boris Johnson’s political trajectory and attitudes toward various issues shows that the man has never kept his election promises since entering the public sphere. He may have to resort to another unexpected approach; to call for a new referendum with parliamentary approval, in which voters are asked to vote again to stay or go out without agreement. This becomes a way out of the escalating crisis that has many supporters among British voters and their representatives and parliamentarians.
Furthermore, the referendum could also give Johnson a chance to end the crisis and rebalance the divided Conservative Party. Calling for a referendum would give him more time to stay in office and improve public perceptions of him as a democratic man who listens to the vote. Regardless of the outcome of the new referendum, it will allow Johnson to emerge as a true leader who respects democracy. If the results of the referendum were to come out, it would move without agreement, and without any objection to its democratic mandate. If the results were to remain in the Union, Johnson would not be harmed, and technically he could remain prime minister even if it was unacceptable in British political traditions.
Johnson’s attempts to preserve his position as a Prime Minister at any cost could lead him to unconventional and unexpected path from his side. Some of which could be that he calls for a new referendum. This is somewhat consistent with the way Johnson handles many of the political files he receives, namely treating things in a way that is always controversial, surprising, and unexpected. However, another significant milestone in the EU exit issue is the erosion of enthusiasm and a wave of separation from the EU. This may be seen as a response to the populist right wing of which Johnson was a part of, which argues that strengthening national sentiment among the British requires a declaration of separation from the European Union, which threatens and detracts from national sovereignty. The defeat of the British right-wing populist movement, which is headed by Johnson, will have an impact on the European continent. The political crisis in Britain and the prospects for solutions, or their disruption in the short term, are practically establishing the future of a united Europe. Further, it is even beyond the shape of the next international relations, which was founded after the Second World War, and is now reeling on a global economic crisis.