Nine months after the historic Brexit referendum, the U.K. formally notified E.U. Council President Donald Tusk this week that it will leave the European Union. The results of the forthcoming divorce proceedings are difficult to forecast, but many commentators fear things will go badly.
Why did the U.K. electorate take what seems to be such a risky course of action by voting for Brexit? Public opinion surveys my colleagues and I have conducted over the past decade with about 150,000 British voters help provide the answer.
Immigration was the key issue. Although in some countries like the United States, the public is deeply divided about the issue, large majorities of British voters consistently tell us they want immigration curtailed. Perceptions that large flows of immigrants pose serious economic, security and cultural threats are widespread.
The basic problem in satisfying the British public demands for immigration control is that as a member of the E.U., the U.K. must permit the free movement of labor from other member countries. In the past few years, public concern about immigration has grown as net migration to the U.K. from other E.U. countries escalated sharply. In the summer of 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to allow hundreds of thousands of refugees to settle in Germany stoked fears that many of these people might soon be on their way to the U.K.
Now the hard part begins. As Brexit negotiations get under way, uncertainty abounds for Britain, for the E.U. and for other countries including the United States.
For example, there is a widespread perception among E.U. leaders that President Donald Trump was a strong supporter of Brexit and he would like to dismantle the E.U. and abandon NATO. Indeed, President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Junker recently remarked publicly that he would support the independence of Ohio and Austin if Trump did not desist. Although perhaps said partly in jest, Junker’s rhetoric is at odds with the kind of careful diplomatic language one would expect from one of the most senior E.U. leaders at a time when stakes are high.
Clearly, there is a need for better communication among all parties.
Equally, it is evident that the E.U. leaders have no intention of abandoning their goal of a United States of Europe. This implies that Brexit negotiations will be fraught, with the U.K. insisting on control of its borders to stem the immigration tide and the E.U. insisting that free movement of labor is essential if Britain wants to continue to enjoy many of the economic advantages of easy access to E.U. markets. Although sanity may prevail with a solution that it is mutually advantageous, there are no guarantees.
Finally, it is uncertain whether the E.U. will respond positively to Trump’s request that European NATO countries pay more of the costs of defending Europe. With the U.K. leaving the E.U., only Estonia, Greece and Poland pay the target rate to NATO. Large E.U. countries like France, Germany, Italy and Spain all consistently fail to meet the standard.
Trump is not the first U.S. leader to make this request; most recently, both former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also have done so to no avail. In an era when the U.S. faces enormous financial pressure for increased domestic and military expenditure in the context of enormous sovereign debt, E.U. leaders need to send clear positive signals that they will try to make the investments needed to help ensure international security. Simply dismissing Trump’s request as [a] mistaken outburst … will be highly counterproductive. More generally, there is much to be gained by the U.K., the E.U. and the U.S. working closely and effectively during the forthcoming Brexit negotiations.
We need adults in the room, but whether they will be there remains to be seen. (TNS)
Harold Clarke is a professor in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences at The University of Texas at Dallas.