Zack Blumberg: Should Britain really Brexit — and can they?

Tuesday, January 8, 2019 - 6:54pm

In the summer of 2016, Great Britain stunned the world by passing the “Brexit” referendum to leave the European Union. However, as Britain’s deadline to finalize a deal with the European Union over the terms of their departure grows nearer, the mood in Britain is starting to change. The sense of confusion that had previously enveloped the debate over Brexit is slowly being replaced by panic, as Britain inches closer to the March 29 deadline with no deal in place. As beleaguered Prime Minister Theresa May desperately negotiates with both Parliament and the European Union, something has become clear: Britain shouldn’t leave the European Union, and under the terms Brexit was voted through on, it really can’t.

First, there’s the simple fact that leaving the European Union would create problems for Britain. According to research done by the Confederation of British Industry in 2016, 71 percent of CBI member businesses reported that the Britain's membership in the EU has had an overall positive impact on their business. The positive impacts these businesses mention are likely tied to the numerous economic benefits Britain receives as an EU member: access to a single European market through the elimination of tariffs between EU member states and the increased negotiating power Britain had in the global marketplace thanks to the EU’s ability to negotiate as one entity. Additionally, the EU’s free movement policies have proved beneficial for both British businesses, who used the policies to plug labor gaps with foreign workers, and British citizens, who used the policies to find jobs abroad in other EU states (there are more than 750,000 British citizens working abroad in the EU). While nationalists complain about the influx of immigrants from poorer Eastern European countries such as Poland and Hungary, Britain needs immigration. Since 1973, Britain’s birth rate has been below replacement level every year (it is currently 1.8 births per couple). An aging, declining population would put an immense strain on Britain’s public services. To top it all off, Britain’s position within the EU is already more advantageous than that of a standard member: Britain is allowed to use its own currency, the British pound, meaning the value of its currency is not tied to the economies of other EU nations.

While pontificating about the economic advantages Britain currently enjoys as an EU member is one thing, another grimmer and more immediate issue faces Brexit right now: On the terms it was promised, it appears to be completely infeasible. For starters, using a simple majority as a trigger for leaving the EU was a nonsensical decision that went against Britain’s own precedent. In 1975, Britain held the United Kingdom European Communities membership referendum, which was a vote on whether they should remain in the European Economic Community. The British government carried out this vote to demonstrate public support; subsequently, 67 percent of the electorate voted to remain a part of said Common Market. To ensure consistency, this same procedure should have been used when leaving the EU, and would have helped ensure strong support for leaving, instead of the chaotic mess Britain currently finds itself in. Potentially, there could be grounds for holding another Brexit vote on the principle that a 60 percent majority should be required.

Secondly, Brexit negotiations will simply never satisfy Parliament, making a deal between the European Union and Britain unworkable (and for Britain, the only thing worse than leaving the EU with a bad deal is leaving the EU with no deal at all). The simple truth is that there are too many parties and too many issues — it would be near impossible for May to come up with a deal that appeases everyone. Between trade regulations, oversight of the Ireland-Northern Ireland border, and the status of customs unions, there are too many partisan interests at play for May to create a solid coalition.

Parliament isn’t the only group May cannot persuade; British citizens who voted to leave might have even higher expectations of what May can wrestle out of the EU. The abundant lies spread by the Leave campaign in the lead-up to the Brexit vote drive these unrealistically high expectations. As part of their campaign, Leave guaranteed that leaving the EU would allow an additional £350 million per week to be invested into National Health Services, while economic analysis showed the actual number was closer to £250 million (the campaign was called out for this lie a few days before the vote and walked back on it, but not before convincing nearly half of British voters it was true). Additionally, Daniel Hannan, a member of Parliament for the Conservative Party who helped lead the Brexit movement, said before the vote, “Absolutely nobody is talking about threatening our place in the single market.” Since then, May has repeatedly explained that leaving the EU means leaving the single market. In creating a campaign backed heavily by falsehood and exaggeration, Leave has placed unattainable expectations on May, meaning no deal she brings back can satisfy British citizens who voted for Brexit on the basis of Leave’s false promises.

While Britain should do everything it can to try to stay in the EU, overturning Brexit will be difficult. With May unlikely to back down, the responsibility falls to Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, to call for a no confidence vote, allowing Labour to gain a majority in Parliament and hold a referendum to overturn the initial decision. It might not be easy, but with so little time left to avoid a no-deal Brexit, it seems like Britain’s best option.

Lastly, this piece only exists because of deceptive campaigning and ill-informed voting. In a world heavily influenced by social media, it is more important than ever that we hold institutions accountable for what they publish, and simultaneously work to be informed citizens and voters. While we at home haven’t voted for anything as long-term or consequential as Brexit, the mere existence of this column is a reminder of the duties we have as citizens of a democracy.

Zack Blumberg can be reached at zblumber@umich.edu.