international analysis and commentary

Brexit will be done, but how?

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The December 12 British election – the fourth in less than 5 years – was meant to settle once and for all the question of the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union. Just like the referendum called by then Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron in 2016 as Brexit was the top concern for the voters.

Whereas the in-out-referendum, triggering an array of resignations, marches and snap elections in the following years, did everything but settle the question, we have now come closer to a clear decision on when and how the United Kingdom will leave the EU. After the crushing victory of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, gaining 365 out of the 650 seats in the House of Commons, the new government will now be able to push through the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union thanks to a comfortable majority. Unlike before negotiating the deal and putting it to a vote in Parliament, this time, the Tory leadership made sure it would have the backing for the document by all of its members of Parliament, not risking any defections as was the case in the previous term.

Cartoon by By Jeff Koterba, published in the Omaha World Herald

 

This electoral campaign was shaped by three major factors. The most obvious being Brexit – every major party had a clear position on this issue, ranging from criticizing the currently negotiated deal as “not real Brexit” (Brexit Party), campaigning for the negotiated deal with fervency (Conservatives); claiming neutrality in a potential second referendum after a Labour re-negotiated deal with the EU (Jeremy Corbyn) up to stopping Brexit altogether (Liberal Democrats).

The other issue was the National Health System (NHS), being primarily a main concern for Labour voters, according to Gideon Skinner, Head of Politics at the survey institute Ipsos MORI. They see the urge for more hospitals, medical equipment as well as for more medical personnel, since more than 30,000 extra nurses and almost 3,000 doctors are currently needed whilst only a small fraction of these figures is being recruited. Given the urgent need for change in this sector, both Conservatives and Labour promised major investments in the NHS. Since the British free health service is of such utmost importance in the people’s national mindset, the claim that under a potential free trade agreement between a Tory-led UK and the United States the NHS would be up for sale, caused major controversy.

The third issue playing a crucial role in the campaign was certainly the personality and the public perception of the main leaders, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn. Their personal campaigns were shaped by public gaffes, accusations and misleading claims. Whereas Johnson had to struggle with reports about his untruthfulness, sexual misconduct and misuse of public funds, the Labour leader was unable to get rid of his party’s image of tolerating inherent anti-Semitism and of himself being an old-fashioned communist who wants to nationalize large sectors of the economy.

Eventually, it was hardly the Prime Minister’s strength in debunking controversies about him, but rather Corbyn’s weakness in combating unfounded claims around his persona that gave Johnson a clear lead. The fact that his opponent is the least popular opposition leader since after the Second World War shows that a large majority of the British public rejected him as a potential prime minister.

Johnson’s image of not telling the truth to his voters certainly came from the referendum campaign in 2016, when it has been proven that leaders like himself and Brexiteer Nigel Farage fooled the public with made-up figures and unrealistic claims. However, this did not seem to do Johnson any harm in the elections.

Whereas three years ago, the voters did not really know what to expect from either outcome due to the large variety of scenarios and eventualities, this time, the public knew to a certain extent what was on offer – either the government’s newly negotiated Withdrawal deal with the EU or more rounds of extensive negotiations and amendments in a hung parliament. The catchy slogan of “Get Brexit Done” resonated more with the voters than the prospect of endless rounds of renegotiations, extensions of deadlines and possibly another referendum campaign under an indecisive Labour-led government.

The results have given the Prime Minister a clear mandate to go ahead with his deal and to leave the EU by the end of January 2020. However, as Scotland’s First Minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon said, whereas Boris Johnson may have a mandate to lead England out of the EU, he does not have a mandate to lead Scotland out of the EU. Her pro-EU party won an overwhelming majority north of the border with England, gaining seats in almost all of the constituencies in Scotland.

The clear discrepancy on EU membership between Scotland and England will not go away easily as the majority of Scots continue to see themselves as a nation wanting to be part of the European family and fundamentally disagreeing with the plan proposed by Downing Street. This crucial disagreement intensifies calls for a second referendum on Scottish independence wanted by the SNP. The fact that Johnson has already ruled out this possibility is unlikely to calm down these calls. It is uncertain how the EU and its political leaders would react as a whole once such a campaign might become realistic as there are different views on Scottish independence among the EU member states.

Regarding the outcome of the UK elections, on the European stage there is now an expectation and a willingness to act quickly in order to implement the Withdrawal Agreement. Once it is ratified by Westminster, the ratification process on the other side of the Channel will follow, allowing the official withdrawal and the beginning of the transition period on February 1, 2020. Whilst this is expected to be carried out swiftly, significant uncertainties will  remain. It is during the transition period that the actual future relationship will be negotiated. This comprises trade, visa, transport and a whole variety of other areas. Thus, the first part of Brexit might get formally done, yet the future relationship of the United Kingdom with the European Union is far from being settled.