Very Sad and Very British: Brexit Interview with Professor Tim Bale

Over two years have passed since the referendum in which 52% of the United Kingdom’s population voted to leave the European Union, yet the British government is still figuring out the logistics of its historic “Brexit.” Last week, Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan to withdraw Britain from the European Union was resoundingly rejected by the House of Commons -- the biggest defeat that a prime minister has ever received in Parliament in modern British history.  The coming months will determine the UK’s post-EU future as a host of important, thorny issues remain undecided.

To make sense of the current turmoil within the British government regarding Brexit, I sat down with Professor Tim Bale, a Politics Professor at Queen Mary University of London. Professor Bale specializes in British and European politics, has written a textbook on comparative European politics, and is deeply interested in Brexit and its ramifications for the future of Europe.

CPR: There has been much debate in the past few months over this idea of the “backstop” surrounding the Irish border in the Brexit deal. What, in your words, is the “backstop” and what about it has stirred so much debate?

Bale: The backstop is essentially an insurance policy: if the UK and the EU fail to negotiate a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement during the transition period after Brexit, then––in order to guarantee that said failure won't lead to the re-imposition of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland––the whole of the UK will remain in some sort of customs union with the EU with special provisions for Northern Ireland, until and unless something more permanent is set up by mutual agreement.  It drives those wedded to there being no difference between the Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK mad because it would see Northern Ireland treated differently from Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) and because it would prevent the UK doing free trade deals with other countries - which is one of the supposed upsides of Brexit.

CPR: To what extent does PM Theresa May have the support of the British people and the support of her party in moving forward with Brexit negotiations?

Bale: She doesn't.  She has some public sympathy, however misplaced, for trying her best and having to put up with a bunch of backstabbers and fanatics in her own party and Cabinet, but not much more than that.  As for her own party: most of them, quite rightly, think she's negotiated a poor deal but haven't been able to imagine who might be able to get anything better.

CPR: Parliament is scheduled to vote on PM Theresa May’s Brexit deal on Tuesday, December 11. If it passes, what does the deal mean for the UK’s future? If it fails, what’s the next step?

Bale: The chances of it passing are, most people think, close to zero.  If it doesn't, she can try to persuade the EU to give her a concession or two and then bring it back to parliament in a few weeks' time.  But that supposes that she won't be forced out or resign if the defeat is too big for her to carry on regardless. Whatever, if the Withdrawal Agreement doesn't pass, either first or second time, we will almost certainly see the UK press for an extension to Article 50, under which currently, we would be obliged to leave the EU without a deal at the end of March next year.  That would leave time for more negotiations and/or a second referendum.

CPR: This week, Parliament voted successfully to hold the government in contempt. Why did this happen and how significant is it?

Bale: It happened because the government had earlier promised to supply parliament with the full legal opinion on the Withdrawal Agreement written by its chief law officer but then tried to wriggle out of doing so.  It's not that significant short-term, except in the sense that it confirmed the opinion of the vast majority of MPs that the Withdrawal Agreement would potentially trap the UK in a customs union due to the backstop provision.  It's significant long term because it will make it difficult for future governments to hide such advice.

CPR: Were you surprised by the results of the 2016 referendum to leave the EU? Why or why not?

Bale: I always thought it would be really close but, like many people, I thought the economic arguments would in the end probably persuade a narrow majority to vote to remain.  I underestimated quite how poor the Remain campaign would be and quite how ruthless the Leave campaign, and its boosters in the media, would be. I also underestimated how many people who didn't normally vote would come out to register a protest vote against a government they felt (not unjustly) didn't care much about them or their concerns.  

CPR: Do you think a second referendum, an idea floated by anti-Brexiters, could conceivably happen? In other words, is there any scenario in which the UK remains in the EU?

Bale: I didn't used to think a second referendum stood much chance of happening but I do now.  It's clear that, as many of us thought, the Brexiteers would find it impossible to deliver on their promises in a real world negotiation with a much bigger, richer and stronger bloc of countries that were determined not to let the UK have all the benefits of belonging to the club without bearing any of the costs.  Now that people know that, and if parliament rejects what's on offer, then the only exit from the burning building is to throw it out to the people to decide again. There's no other way to make a decision to stay in after all legitimate.

CPR:What do you think the economic fallout of Brexit will be? How close to the EU is the UK likely to remain in terms of trade and customs?

Bale: All - and I mean all -the credible independent assessments say the country will be worse of as a result of any conceivable deal.  Even if we end up very close, we won't have a say in the regulatory environment, as we do now. That's crazy.

CPR: Far down the line, decades from now, how do you think this period of time in the UK’s history will be remembered? What will people focus on and what might they overlook?

Bale: It depends on whether we leave or not.  If we don't, it'll either be seen as a three year nightmare we'd rather forget or, if the Brexiteers cry betrayal and people believe them, the beginning of an even more populist era that brings to power some sort of anti-European British Donald Trump.  If we do leave, we'll just muddle through - some of realising what we're missing but trying not to grumble or to say 'I told you so', others just getting on with things, either blissfully unaware or else moaning that it doesn't seem to have got rid of all the 'bloody immigrants'.  All very sad, and all very British, I'm afraid.

InterviewBenjamin Sachs