On 23 June 2016, the British people settled a question that had rumbled under the surface of UK politics for a generation: should the country remain within the European Union – or leave, ending its 40-year membership to go it alone?
In an interview in The Daily Telegraph, just before the British Brexit referendum, the psychologist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman (winner of a 2002 Nobel Prize for shattering the assumption that economics is rational), said that “The major impression one gets observing the debate is that the reasons for exit are clearly emotional.”
He warned that British voters were succumbing to impulsive gut feelings and irrational reflexes in the Brexit campaign with little regard for the enormous consequences down the road.
At the time, I wrote: This last week’s furor over Brexit has filled the news channels. In a close race – the Leave campaign won by 51.9% to 48.1%, a gap of 1.3 million votes – the British Isles voted to step out of the European Union. The referendum vote has polarized the country and triggered Prime Minster David Cameron’s resignation after the British public rejected his entreaties to remain.
The largest blow the British population has delivered to its establishment in modern history – was it strategic or just plain stupid? Well, that depends.
Prime Minister David Cameron had argued that Brexit would be an act of “economic self-harm.” “I was absolutely clear about my belief that Britain is stronger, safer, and better off inside the E.U. … I made clear that the referendum was about this, and this alone, not the future of a single politician, including myself. But the British people planned to take a different path. As such, I think the country requires a fresh leadership to take it in this direction.”
Brexit, a combination of the words Britain and exit, has caused profound shock to many for several reasons. Britain, who joined the E.U. in 1973, is the only major country to date to leave the E.U. They may not be the last. Yet, ironically the LEAVE referendum vote is not so much about the inefficiencies of the E.U. but perhaps more about Britain’s internal problems, class warfare and sovereignty.
Quite a few Brits agree that Brexit was ill thought and are calling for a new vote. However, taking back the consequences of a uniformed electorate voting on emotion may be too late.
In 2016, Brexiteers argued that leaving the EU would result in an immediate cost saving, as the country would no longer contribute to the EU budget. What was not known at that time was whether the financial advantages of EU membership, such as free trade and inward investment would outweigh those upfront costs.
Recently, British lawmakers rejected all eight proposed Brexit options, including a commitment for the government to negotiate a customs union with the European Union. That plan was narrowly shot down, losing by eight votes.
On Monday, lawmakers passed an amendment allowing them to vote on as many options as they wanted, with choices including leaving the EU without a deal, revoking Article 50, and holding a second Brexit referendum. Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said Wednesday’s results are proof Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal, which has been rejected twice, is the best and only way to go forward.
Understanding Brexit is not easy. A recent The WEEK article lays out point by point the Brexit Pros and Cons of Britain leaving the EU that is worth the read. I’ll summarize here some of the key points on costs pro and con, trade, investment, sovereignty, immigration, jobs and security.
A huge issue then was sovereignty with even the most ardent Remainers admitting that EU membership involved giving up some control over domestic affairs.
For Leavers, exiting the EU would allow Britain to re-establish itself as a truly independent nation with connections to the rest of the world.
Remainers argued leaving would result “in the country giving up its influence in Europe, turning back the clock and retreating from the global power networks of the 21st century. To them, EU membership involved a worthwhile exchange of sovereignty for influence: in return for agreeing to abide by EU rules, they said, Britain had a seat around the negotiating table and its voice was amplified on the world stage as a result.”
Immigration was also a huge issue as under EU law, there was reciprocity for immigration and emigration. Britain could not prevent a citizen of another member state from coming to live in the UK, and vice versa, Britons could also live and work anywhere else in the EU. The result was a huge increase in immigration into Britain.
Brexiteers said Britain should “regain control” of its borders; Remainers said the net effect had been overwhelmingly positive despite housing and other service-related issues.
Jobs were another factor, Remainers claiming three million jobs would be lost if the vote was leave. Leavers claimed fewer people immigrating would mean less competition for jobs and potentially, higher wages.
In an article for the London School of Economics, Professor Adrian Favell said limiting freedom of movement would deter the “brightest and the best” of the continent from coming to Britain. Brexiteers, meanwhile, said Britain could tailor its post-Brexit immigration policy to the needs of the economy.
“As the EU is a single market, imports and exports between member countries are exempt from tariffs and other barriers. ‘More than 50% of our exports go to EU countries,’ said Sky News during the campaign, and membership meant we had a say over how trading rules were drawn up. Within the EU, Britain also benefited from trade deals between the EU and other world powers (now including Canada and Japan, which have both concluded free-trade deals with the EU since the UK voted to leave).” – Brexit: pros and cons of leaving the EU
According to Remainers, the UK would lose the benefits of free trade with neighbors and reduce its negotiating power with the rest of the world. Brexiteers, said the UK could compensate for those disadvantages by establishing its own trade agreements. They also argued that most small and medium-sized firms, which didn’t trade overseas, would no longer be subject to the regulatory burden that came with being an EU member.
The consequences of Brexit for businesses that took advantage of these freedoms was always a matter of debate and conjecture.
At the time of the referendum, Brexiteers argued that leaving the EU would result in an immediate cost saving, as the country would no longer contribute to the EU budget. However, a question remains whether the financial advantages of EU membership, such as free trade and inward investment, outweighed the upfront costs.
As far as security is concerned, former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, who was in favor of Brexit, said Britain was leaving the “door open” to terrorist attacks by remaining in the EU. “This open border does not allow us to check and control people,” he argued.
Several senior military figures, including former chiefs of defense staff Lord Bramall and Jock Stirrup, argued the opposite. In a letter released by No 10 during the campaign, they said the EU was an “increasingly important pillar of our security,” especially at a time of instability in the Middle East and in the face of “resurgent Russian nationalism and aggression.”
Michael Fallon, who was defense secretary at the time, said the UK benefited from being part of the EU, as well as NATO and the UN. “It is through the EU that you exchange criminal records and passenger records and work together on counter-terrorism,” he said. “We need the collective weight of the EU when you are dealing with Russian aggression or terrorism.”
The debate continues, unabated. So, years after the 2016 vote while the country is still deep into the departure process, the argument continues about the pros and cons of quitting the EU – and what Brexit will mean for the UK.
Speaking to The New York Times earlier this month, Sarah Niblock, the chief executive of the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy, said: “Brexit is ever-present in the consulting room… It is now so excruciating, and so difficult for people to have conversations about Brexit — families, workplaces, neighbors are so split — there is so much division between groups in society that it is almost as if the therapeutic room has become the last place people can talk with any ease.”
Fast forward to today and the debate is still on, families divided, friends and business associates polarized by this issue. As Daniel Kahneman argued, the risk was that the British people will lash out later at scapegoats if EU withdrawal proves to be a disastrous error. “They won’t regret it,” he said, “because regret is rare. They’ll find a way to explain what happened and blame somebody. That is the general pattern when things go wrong, and people are afraid.”
Well people are still afraid and still arguing. The debate continues, unabated. Three years after the 2016 vote the country is still deep into the departure process and the argument about the pros and cons of quitting the EU. Unfortunately, what Brexit will mean for the UK still polarizes friends, associates and families as citizens still debate the right thing to do for all concerned.