Why Brexit is Still Poorly Understood

“No running commentary” not sustainable for two years

By James McCormack

The UK is on the verge of embarking on its biggest and most abrupt transition since the end of World War II with only a rudimentary public understanding of what it will entail. Nearly four months after the referendum confirmed a majority in favour of leaving the EU, there is no greater clarity on the alternative future the country has chosen, how it will materialise, or over what timeframe. Why? These are fundamental questions to remain unanswered for such a momentous change in direction.

Brexit referendum result came as surprise

Brexit confusion reigns in the UK primarily because the referendum result caught the government completely unprepared, as there was no meaningful contingency planning for it in the public sector outside the Bank of England. In addition, post-referendum political turmoil was highly disruptive, with all major political parties experiencing crises of sorts. As a result, neither the bureaucracy nor political leaders were well positioned to authoritatively grasp the mandate they were unexpectedly given.

The government of Prime Minister May has been in place since mid-July, and has taken a number of concrete steps toward launching the negotiations that will determine the future of UK-EU relations. The Department of Exiting the European Union has been created, the administration of government is being reoriented to focus on Brexit, and the Prime Minister has indicated that Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty governing withdrawal from the EU will be triggered by end-March 2017. However, none of these developments sheds light on the critical details of the negotiations or the intended objectives of their outcome, and there are three reasons to expect a persistent absence of clarity.

To comment, or not to comment?

First and most importantly, the Prime Minister has stated there will be no “running commentary” on the government’s negotiating stance. This seems sensible, since specific objectives that were announced publicly would be more difficult and costly to achieve. But it also means businesses and investors — UK and foreign alike — will be without a read on possible limits on migration, preferential access to EU markets (including for financial services) and any transitional arrangements for an interim period between withdrawal from the Single Market, if that happens, and the implementation of a new UK-EU trade deal.

The implication is the government has concluded that the costs of revealed preferences with respect to negotiations exceed the costs of prolonged economic uncertainty. This is debatable, since the parameters of the UK’s positions on the biggest Brexit questions are clearly being drawn from the leadership’s interpretation of the referendum debate and outcome, and are thus already in the public domain. Moreover, the UK government can control only its own communications. If the EU finds it advantageous to provide a running commentary once negotiations begin, there is little the UK can do to stop it.

“Hard Brexit” vs. “Soft Brexit” debate to continue

Second, the ruling Conservative party is still without a unified view on Brexit. Academic research such as the Chapel Hill Expert Survey suggests the party is one of the most divided in Europe on EU issues, and the referendum has obviously not bridged those divisions. This would present challenges for consistent messaging even if the government were intent on being more open about its approach to Brexit. In the chosen less open approach, it contributes to continuing speculation on internal disagreement over policy and priorities. The most meaningful and consequential “hard Brexit” versus “soft Brexit” deliberations appear to be taking place within government, and even inside cabinet.

Third, there is a plethora of terms and concepts in the debate on Brexit that are unlikely to be fully understood. The “Norway model” and “Switzerland model” are put forward as post-Brexit options for the UK’s relations with the EU, as is the possibility of defaulting to World Trade Organisation rules for trade. The challenge that many commentators — let alone the general public — face is being able to identify and fully understand the differences between a free trade area, a customs union, and belonging to the single market. For example, in a European context, Iceland is in the single market but not the customs union, and Turkey is in the customs union but not the single market.

Conclusion

Despite no comprehensive articulation of what Brexit might entail, a majority in the UK voted for it. Now, there is a degree of collective apprehension, as several specific pre-referendum pro-Brexit claims by politicians prove undeliverable in the short term (additional funding for the National Health Service, most notably), and longer-term complexities and costs come into view.

For the government, having no running commentary on negotiations with the EU may not prove a viable communication strategy over a two year period. Consistent messaging would arguably help, as would an initiative to clarify the various options and trade-offs, allowing for open public debate and reflection. This should not be seen as a distraction from the business of negotiating Brexit; rather, it should be central to guiding it.