”Don’t take Brexit as given”

Britain now faces only bad, worse or catastrophic choices. It is time to explore the unspoken option: not to take brexit for granted, and consider what would bring this country back to the EU, writes Mats Karlsson, director of Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm.

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Mats Karlsson. Foto: Pressbild


After six months the British government still has no known strategy for Brexit. Does behind Theresa May’s “sphinx-like” attitude lie a path not to leave the EU?

If there is no good path for Britain outside the EU, and if EU anyway has to reform for its own reasons, is there perhaps a solution to keep Europe together?

Half a year has passed since Brits voted 52–48 to leave EU, with a majority in England and Wales, but not in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Brexit campaign was built on false premises. Without Brexit refugees would engulfe the country. With Brexit, Britain would have more money for the National Health Service. Biritish business would participate in new spheres of global prosperity-creating free trade. If Brexit were the people’s verdict Africle 50 would be triggered the day after, promised the unfortunate David Cameron. Today, half- and untruths are laid bare.


While the British debate rages in anguish between soft and hard, Japanese banks have already made it clear to the Chancellor that the choice is binary: is Britain inside or outside the single market. If outside, they say, they will have to move some of their functions to the Continent.

Theresa May needs to protect her Conservative Party from the anti-European UKIP. She needs to face the pro-European Scottish independence leanings. She will need parliamentary backing for her negotiation position, as well as for the negotiation outcome. These equations do not have a singular solution.

Great Britain only faces bad, worse or catastrophic choices. It therefore becomes necessary to explore the unsaid alternative: to not take Brexit for given, to consider what it would take to bring this country back to the EU.


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    Marek Belka, former Polish Prime Minister and Europe Director of the IMF, makes the point that Britain will make it economically in the short term but lose big time in the long term. The EU will be hurt in the short term but in the long term the loss is not decisive. It is the widened play field for the “populist pyromaniacs” that is the risk, not Brexit in itself. Britain engaged in the EU for economic reasons and never really took Europe on board in a deep way. EU must anyway formulate its future on its own, he says.

    Several European leaders share a similar view: Let the UK leave. The damage is done. We have our hands full to fix our house.

    It is true that Europe faces the same challenges either way, but it is not the same if Britain leaves. The historical role the country has played for a liberal inclusive-Europe is real. Its loss would damage the alliances on which Europe’s political and economic security depends.

    The bad news for the proponents of soft Brexit is that that path seems more and more imaginary. There is hardly a way to combine what many Brits want (single market, lots of cooperation) with what the other EU countries, the EU-27, must protect (the four freedoms, solidarity and member responsibility). This is not because the EU-27 want to punish Britain but because the EU-27 can’t offer it without seriously hurting themsleves. A weakened EU-27 would not be in Sweden’s interest.

    With more explicit alternatives the difficulties mount: bad, worse or catastrophic.

    A bad outcome for Britain is to accept EU regulations, including the single market, but lack influence and still pay a bill, something like Norway.

    A worse outcome is to pursue different trade agreements, likely or not, and to stay outside much cooperation, something like Turkey or Canada.

    A catastrophic outcome is if beyond that the United Kingdom gets pulled into a new struggle about Scottish independence, the conflicts on Northern Ireland are rekindled, and the country ends up as “Little England” with a somewhat truncated City in London.

    The scenarios of the Brexiteers are wishful thinking. That has become even more apparent after six months of attempts to define alternatives. The expectations of the Brexit voters, shaped by deceitful campaign promises, will be deeply disappointed. Step by step this is sinking in. That lies behind the hesitations of Theresa May.

    Since David Ricardo enlightened our understaing of the prosperity-enhancing role of trade, Great Britain has calculated well what lies in its interest, throughout its Empire, its post-War strength and its EU-membership. It is difficult to believe that these economic mathematics will not in the end influence the ultimate democratic will of the British voters.

    When the negotiation positions will come to be defined, the actual space for possible outcomes will become more narrow and apparent, and they are negative.

    The position of the EU should be consistent but not harder than that Great Britain, on reflection, can choose a way back. At the same time the EU should start its own reform process. It could become a dilemma for European leaders to find a tone that is both firm and open.

    The EU anyway needs deeper collaboration among the Euro members, and a reassessment of what member solidarity means, from migration to the labour market to the budget. A reformed EU can beome more attractive for Britain. Therein lies a path of dialogue.

    For Britain’s politicians the way back will seem insurmountable. Parliamentarians will be required to express declarations of loyalty to the outcome of the referendum. But they will also be required to take positions on the outcome of the negotiations. Today judicial challenges are in process on in which order decisions can be made, with or without the participation of Parliament. There is also a process in the making, in an Irish court, on whether a trigger of Article 50 is irreversible. Don’t underestimate the decisive role of Parliament and courts.

    When the negotiations start, the half- and untruths on which the unfortunate outcome of the Brexit referendum was based will confronted with new realities. New democratic openings will appear.

    To this must be added that the special relation that Great Britain claims to have with the US appears in a different light under president-elect Trump - a hitherto unanalysed and ambiguous factor in today’s politics, which more and more will be about values.

    Great Britain has taken a fateful step on a dangerous path, but the outcome is not yet irreversible. EU-27 does best in not taking Brexit as a given.

    Mats Karlsson


    Utrikespolitiska institutet (Institute of International Affairs) in Stockholm


    Mats Karlsson.

    Foto: Pressbild Bild 1 av 2

    Prime Minister Theresa May.

    Foto: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP Bild 2 av 2