Multi-Level Governance

Brexit Means Brexit Means What? 

 February 16, 2017 - by George Ross, Jean-Monnet Chair ad personam, Université de Montréal

Brexit began with UK PM David Cameron’s flawed strategy to keep Eurosceptics under control by calling the June, 2016 national referendum whose results cost Cameron his job. What soon  followed showed, in Jeremy Kinsman’s words, that the Brexiters were « …the dog that caught the bus : they hadn’t thought what to do next. » The absence of plans was evident in new PM Teresa May’s puzzling announcement that « Brexit means Brexit. »

There followed months of confusion. May appointed three leading Brexiters (including Boris Johnson, who had proposed that the UK could « …have its cake and eat it too») to top Brexit jobs, in part to keep them inside the government tent, but without knowing what they were to do. The new situation also disorganized the British civil service. Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty had to be invoked to negotiate « leaving », but excepting those ready to jump over the Brexit cliff without knowing where they would land, leaving remained to be defined. Among the options were staying in the EU single market without a voice in EU affairs, staying in the EU customs union but jettisoning EU laws, regulations, and practices, « cherry picking » desirable parts of the EU  (protecting the City of London and EU research and development, among others), or cutting EU ties and « going global. » Some even thought that people would return to their senses and overrule the referendum results.


May had begun amending « Brexit Means Brexit » in « harder » directions in autumn 2016 before a major elaboration speech in London in January, 2017 that was followed by a White Paper. Article 50 would be declared and negotiations with the EU would begin in April 2017. The « UK will get control of the number of people coming to Britain from the EU» and remove itself from the oversight of the EU Court of Justice, » positions that, May indicated « cannot mean membership of the single market .» These points established basic red lines for the UK and EU.  In essence, May had fully accepted the referendum’s conclusions.  The London was a pre-bargaining manifesto mixing conciliatory rhetoric, openings for smaller deals (on the reciprocal rights of EU and UK citizens and Ireland’s worries about a restored border with  Northern Ireland), plus threats that « no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain. »

What will happen now? According to a prominent British journalist, it will be nothing less than  «… the most complex project undertaken by the modern British state outside of total war » (Janen Ganesh, Financial Times, February 17, 2017). Article 50 dealing can begin only once the UK has officially presented its detailed positions and the EU has formulated its responses, cutting months from the statutory two year period. May has said that the UK will seek a « fully-reciprocal free trade deal » with the EU while also negotiating new trade deals elsewhere, even if Article 50 is meant only to determine « terms of divorce. »  The UK will try to « cherry pick » the parts of EU membership that it would like to keep, even if Merkel, other EU leaders and the EU’s designated negotiators have stated that they will not allow this.  It has been widely assumed that, given the EU’s present difficult state, large EU concessions to the UK were unlikely, lest EU members insist on new deals for themselves, but EU Commission President Juncker has worried publicly that the UK will play divided EU members against one another. The negotiations will also involve squabbles about how much the UK will owe the EU budget after Brexit. EU Election in 2017  campaigns scheduled in the Netherlands, Germany, France, the Czech Republic, and possibly elsewhere, could impact the bargaining, as could the Trump administration’s volatility. The EU will have to continue confronting its chronic crises around refugees, the Greek debt, Russia, and others while bargaining with the UK. In addition, although the UK has yet to face the Brexit-related economic problems that many predicted, they may still be on the way.  Finally, May must time things to position her government for the UK’s 2020 general election. 

(picture credit: NIKLAS HALLE'N / AFP)