What’s next for the UK and Europe?

Years of debate and negotiation are coming to a head as the deadline for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union looms. Political science professor Brendan O’Leary explains what’s happened and how a resolution could be found.

Big Ben with the U.K. and E.U. flags

In June 2016, U.K. voters chose—though not by a large margin—to leave the European Union in a referendum. The result stunned the country and the world, sparking the resignation of then-Prime Minister David Cameron and paving the way for the rise of current Prime Minister Theresa May. But May has hit walls at nearly every turn, losing a series of votes on her plans for negotiating an exit deal that a majority of her Conservative Party members can support. 

Last week, she was forced to ask the European Union for an extension of the March 29 deadline for the split to be finalized. It’s unclear whether she can meet the terms E.U. officials have set forward in order to get significantly more time to make a deal.  

Brendan O’Leary, the Lauder Professor of Political Science in the School of Arts and Sciences, has been watching developments since before the vote was taken. A native of Ireland, O’Leary was a political adviser to Irish, British, and American officials during the Northern Ireland peace process in the 1980s and ‘90s. He has also worked with the E.U., United States, United Nations, and aid agencies in work on conflict resolution and post-conflict reconstruction around the world. 

O’Leary spoke with Penn Today about this drawn-out drama and whether, and when, there might be a resolution. 


Most people have heard of ‘Brexit’ or ‘UKExit,’ but many are lost in the details. How did we get here?

The accidental interpretation of the outcome in 2016 is, firstly, that David Cameron held the referendum, when he was not absolutely obliged to do so, and secondly was hyperconfident that he would win it. He thought, wrongly, that he knew how to win referendums because he, mistakenly, thought he had been decisive in winning a referendum in 2014 in which Scotland had voted to remain in union with Great Britain. Poor timing, and overconfidence on Cameron’s part, led to poor judgment on how to run the Remain campaign. The Remain side focused on people’s wallets and rarely on the E.U. as a successful peace project. The Leave side focused on ‘taking back control,’ implying that the U.K., a key player within the E.U., was somehow a prisoner of bureaucrats in Brussels and presented a variety of implausible benefits that would flow from leaving. 

The alternative perspective is that the result was not contingent. The English—and I mean the English, not the U.K. as a whole—have arguably been the most Euro-skeptical people in Europe since the early 1980s. They are prone to emphasize their English or their British identity, which they often fuse or confuse, significantly ahead of their European one. There was always latent anti-European sentiment, but in general it didn’t seem to matter because at election time there were always other issues to discuss, and in surveys the E.U., and its predecessors, rarely figured in the top 10 most important issues nominated by the public. 

Deciding to have a referendum on the question of membership meant two things. The E.U., which had been in crisis for some years, was the topic, and the voters didn’t have to think about other questions; they could just focus on their general disposition toward the European Union. Or, they could focus their wrath or affection upon the incumbent government. Referendums, as always, allow voters to decide on the issue at hand, or to vote according to their views on the serving government. Both phenomena mattered in 2016. 

The key thing about referendums is that, to avoid a demagogic contest, citizens need accurate information, and the question asked should specify clearly defined alternatives, namely, either A or B, but not, as in this case, either A or not A. The meaning of Remain was fairly clear, but the meaning of Leave was not: Leavers were free to paint any picture they liked. 

What did it mean to leave the E.U.? Most people understood that there is a set of European institutions, and some knew of the Commission, Parliament, Court and Council, and the referendum campaign made clear that leaving the European Union meant that the U.K. would no longer be in these rule-making, rule-interpreting, and rule-adjudicating bodies. 

What was much less clear was what else would be left? Did Leave mean leaving the customs union and the single market of the European Union? Which of these domains the public wanted to leave, if any, wasn’t entirely clear, and knowledge of their consequences was pitifully inadequate.

Another question that wasn’t properly addressed was the fact that if there were to be a new border between the U.K. and the E.U., then that would mean there would have to be a fresh physical infrastructure on the island of Ireland and fresh infrastructure on the peninsula linking Gibraltar to Spain. 

Since the Good Friday agreement of 1998, there has been a complete demilitarization of the land border across Ireland. That, combined with the U.K. and Ireland’s joint membership in the E.U.’s customs union and single regulatory market, means there is no physical barrier on the border across Ireland. It remains a legal border, but it is devoid of much of its historical significance. People drive back and forth freely, with no impediments. There are extensive, integrated supply chains that extend across the island, and there are between 200 and 300 roads across the border, more than the entire number of roads between the member-states of the EU and the countries outside the Union that lie to their east.  

This was a question waiting to explode in the negotiations and it duly has.

Theresa May seems like an accidental prime minister, since Cameron resigned after the Leave position won the referendum. How has she handled the negotiations with the E.U. and her own party?

She is, to my knowledge, the first prime minister in a long time never to have held an economic portfolio in opposition or in the government. In her previous post, she had focused her attention relentlessly on controlling migration. That’s what her profile was as home secretary, and when she became prime minister, one of her clear red lines was that leaving the E.U. meant ending freedom of movement of E.U. citizens into the U.K. She assumed that opposition to migration had been the key reason that had motivated Leave voters. 

That preference quickly ruled out other kinds of arrangements with Europe. The prohibition on freedom of movement meant, in important ways, rejecting the four freedoms of the E.U. which the member-states regard as indivisible [the movement of people, goods, services, and capital]. Without that background and profile, without her accidental arrival in the premiership, the U.K. might have found itself a better way out of its new self-imposed predicaments, even if that always meant making the best of a bad world.

Her original idea was that the U.K. would leave all the political institutions, and the customs union, the single market, the jurisdiction of the Court, everything. She spent most of the first year after the vote implying that the U.K. would also have an ambitious free trade agreement with the E.U. In the course of that year, she became educated and started to learn the difficulties attached to her tautology that ‘Brexit means Brexit.’ The E.U. could not have been clearer: A withdrawal agreement had to come first, followed by the negotiations of future arrangements. 

In the summer of 2017, May called a snap general election, confident she’d expand the narrow majority Cameron had won in 2015. But she was wooden and robotic before the electorate and lost a 20 percent lead in the polls. That left her party incapable of forming a government without an alliance with another party. That party, the Democratic Unionist Party, an uber-British and ultra-Protestant party, absolutely insists Northern Ireland should not be treated differently than Great Britain—except when it suits its interests. 

May appeared to hit upon a solution for the difficulties with Ireland. It became known as the ‘backstop,’ but is better described as an insurance policy. Northern Ireland would remain in the customs union, remain for most purposes inside the single market, and instead of fresh infrastructure at the border, customs and regulatory checks would take place at ports in Northern Ireland and Great Britain and airports, where they are already being done for goods and services coming from outside the E.U. 

When Mrs. May made this agreement, she failed to consult the DUP. They immediately said they wanted no part of it. She caved within days and came up with what she thought was another solution: the whole of the U.K. would go into the backstop. For practical purposes, the U.K. would remain inside the customs union and remain within the regulatory structure of the single market until such time as a new trade agreement with the E.U. would render the backstop unnecessary. 

That may have seemed clever, but of course she’d moved from one difficulty to another and into a maze of her own making. She’d created an arrangement where the U.K. might be permanently trapped in the backstop because the backstop’s provisions, which go beyond border arrangements, will apply as long as there’s no new trade agreement with the E.U. and while within the backstop the U.K. cannot make new trade agreements and ratify them with third countries. 

Tell me about her party problems. 

The Conservative Party is split into three factions: One faction wants out at all costs, preferably with no relationship with the E.U.—a fresh start. The rest of us call this a cliff-edge mentality. Another faction is content with Mrs. May’s deal, and the third faction either favors remaining (its first preference) or it favors a much softer exit, or an easier one, where the U.K. remains in the single market and the customs union. 

Those three groupings permanently fight inside her cabinet, and that’s produced the chaotic incoherence of the U.K.’s posture toward the rest of the world.

Things aren’t helped by the fact that the opposition Labor party is led by someone, Jeremy Corbyn, who finds himself in the weird position of being the Euro-skeptical leader of the party backed by people who would remain if they could in the 2017 elections. He would prefer to take advantage of current conditions to achieve some sort of soft exit, but Mrs. May has not been prepared to do a deal with him.

So, May has asked the E.U. for a delay. What’s next?

Some people in the Council of the European Union believe there’s nothing to be gained from granting an extension, that we’ll just end up in the same place. Others, particularly Ireland and Germany, are keen on helping the U.K. toward a settlement.

The European Council, however, has changed the terms of the game within the U.K. The Commons must ratify the existing draft withdrawal agreement (provided the Speaker consents to have it put) no later than April 12. If it does not, then the Commons must choose between no deal, or revoking the request to withdraw from the E.U., or accept a much long extension of the negotiations. The latter possibility comes with a sting: The U.K. must participate in the elections to the European Parliament scheduled for May. The latter would inevitably approximate a fresh referendum on remaining or leaving the E.U. They’re essentially saying, you can have the longer extension, though you need to get your act together. But the price is participating in the European parliamentary elections.

Do you think there will be a second referendum? What do you think would happen?

I think that would be a rational outcome, but it’s actually difficult at the moment to see how we get there. As yet, Labour’s not unambiguously committed to a second referendum. If it is, and it is joined by the Welsh and Scottish nationalists and some of the other parties, then there could emerge a parliamentary majority for a second referendum vote. That choice could be between Mrs. May’s deal and Remain, which would like an A or B choice. 

But those who have demanded that the U.K. should leave everything might feel that they are being deliberately frustrated, so there might be a case for putting three options on the ballot paper, but that would create serious problems, as any political scientist will tell you. At any length you can endure.

If there were another referendum, I think Remain would win, for four distinct reasons. First, since the referendum of 2016, Leave voters have died at a rate of 2-to-1 compared to Remain voters; that’s a function of the young being more likely to want to remain. Secondly, this time the young, especially young students and graduates, will turn out. They were casual the last time and will turn out in very significant numbers given another chance. Thirdly, the sheer difficulties that have accompanied over what leaving means has and will continue to demoralize the Leave camp. Lastly, I think the Remain majorities in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and in Greater London would be even higher than in 2016. 

It is very difficult to forecast the precise future as there are an enormous number of agents and processes at play here. But I have a sneaking suspicion that the U.K. may be obliged to participate in European parliamentary elections, and that these may then become a second referendum by proxy. And sometime before then, Mrs. May will have been forced to resign. Whatever unfolds, it won’t be dull.  

What are your thoughts on the most recent news, as Parliament has tried to wrest control of the process from May?

May has acknowledged that she does not have enough support to proceed with her third attempt, but she has reserved the right to try again.

The Commons has now voted to proceed to ‘indicative votes,’ a path which may be in danger of ignoring  a central insight  of the formal study of voting: if you have multiple options and no clear rule to decide among them you may end up in an inconclusive cycle.

What the Commons has to do, to be rational, is to winnow its options down to two, or (wait for it!) determine the Condorcet winner, namely, the option that wins the most pairwise contests with all the other options! If they do not succeed in picking a winner, they may serve one therapeutic lesson: determining the will of the people is often indeterminate! If they do succeed in establishing a winner the question will then become whether May’s government will accept it, attempt to override it, or resign. There are cabinet ministers resigning as I reply to you. Stay tuned.

Brendan O’Leary is the Lauder Professor of Political Science in the Political Science Department of the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.