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Facing the Never-Ending Brexit

I contributed a piece on Brexit (what else?) to the International Yearbook of CIDOB (Barcelona Centre for International Affairs). They kindly translated it into Spanish. My original English version is below.


Facing the Never-Ending Brexit


Brexit is not going away. The problems Britain has faced negotiating its withdrawal mean that even if it does exit then the next stage of negotiations over a new UK-EU relationship will be just as difficult, divisive and drawn-out. Whether you live in Birmingham, Brussels or Barcelona, Brexit is going to remain a topic of debate.


How then should we write, study and debate it? I would suggest seven rules for how (not) to talk about Brexit—


1: Be specific about what it is you’re referring to when you say ‘Brexit’. The word’s increasingly as meaningless as ‘globalisation’ or ‘neoliberalism.’ It summarises a series of processes unfolding over various levels and timeframes, which would benefit from being examined and named more specifically. ‘Brexit’ should not be shorthand for British politics.


2: Don’t let talking about Brexit drown out the rest of British politics Understand Brexit and you understand contemporary Britain. To a point. Brexit is not British politics, only a part of it. Britain remains a country whose economy, politics, security, society and culture matter to many. Obsessing about Brexit distracts from important other developments.


3: You cannot be neutral. Whatever you say will be part of the fight to define the narrative of Brexit. The fight to define the narrative of Brexit, i.e. what it the British people meant when 52% of those who voted did so for Leave, has been the central struggle of British politics, and in the EU a topic of debate about the Union’s future. Having something to say does not mean you have to align with a certain political agenda. There exists sufficient evidence and analysis to pass judgement on different aspects of Brexit and in a way that ensure an informed and high-quality debate.


4: Don’t assume the British people, elite and EU decision makers, understand the British state and politics. A lot of Britons, including government ministers, have rarely thought about or been taught about the British state, its evolution and operation. Brexit is mostly about what type of country Britain wants to be, which in part stems from varying levels of knowledge and satisfaction at its current setup. I’ve often found that explaining Brexit involves helping fellow Britons understand Britain. EU negotiators have also repeatedly misunderstood the British side of negotiations.


5: Recognise that the British (and you) are on a steep learning curve about Britain, the EU, and the wider modern world (especially trade). The British are being presented with multiple questions and debates about Britain’s identity, society, political economy, trade, international position, constitution, and unity. Those debates predate the vote, but the referendum combined them and refuelled them. Whether it’s the public, ministers, officials, journalists, experts, or EU officials and negotiators presented with an unprecedented development for the EU, we have all been on a steep learning curve. That involves lots of uncomfortable questions and silences for everyone including you.


6: Remember that Brexit can bore people. A lot. It might dominate British politics, but that does not mean it excites people. Of course, that’s certainly the case elsewhere in the EU. While the arcane procedures of the House of Commons can entertain, the technicalities do not. Brexit excites more when it connects to issues people care about, such as travel, employment or sport.


7: Don’t patronise, belittle or ignore the British people. All sides do this, whether it’s labelling Leave voters ‘little Englanders’ or attacking Remain voters as ‘Remoners’. The country is already divided enough. Commentators elsewhere in the EU have not helped. The British are not the aberration some want them to be. Leave voters are not all racist hangovers of Britain’s imperial past. Nor are all Remain voters avid pro-Europeans. To a certain extent, British voters mirror feelings found across Europe.

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