Brian Beary, a European journalist and analyst based in Washington DC, spoke with Second Nexus about the U.K.’s exit from the EU and the impact on Britain, the EU and the U.S. Beary cites immigration as the main reason British voted to disconnect from European integration. He anticipates a “multi-speed” Europe in the future and cites high disapproval rates from Europeans on Trump.
SECOND NEXUS: Recently the British Parliament passed a bill allowing Prime Minister Theresa May to start talks to leave the European Union. Will Brexit be completed sooner and more comprehensively than many analysts in the U.K. and Europe were expecting?
BEARY: Sooner, yes, more comprehensively, no. My sense is that the Brexit talks will wrap up late 2018 and that the U.K. will leave the EU on April 1, 2019. In the weeks after the Brexit referendum, some people, including myself, thought the Brexit talks would drag on for many years. However, the big game-changer came in January when U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May said she was planning to steer the U.K. toward a hard Brexit that puts it outside both the EU single market and the customs union. If she sticks to this position, it makes things simpler in terms of the exit negotiation. Post-exit, there will likely be a more complicated and protracted part where the U.K. tries to negotiate an entirely new relationship with the EU. There is no blueprint for how this should proceed because a member country has never left the EU before.
SECOND NEXUS: What do you consider to be the main reasons that a majority of British voted to exit the EU?
BEARY: There were three reasons: immigration, immigration and immigration. No seriously, while there had been a groundswell of British public opinion opposed to the European Union on the right of the political spectrum, they were a minority nationwide. However, the large influx of immigrants to the U.K. over the past decade stirred up anxieties among left-leaning, working class voters. When I watched the referendum results trickle in, I noticed that northern English Labor heartlands like Sunderland were voting Brexit – that was when I knew the game was up for the Remainers. Empirical research suggests that immigrants have been a net plus for the British economy. However, anti-immigration advocates were very effective in persuading enough Britons that the opposite was true. The anti-Syrian refugee ‘Breaking Point’ poster that U.K.IP used so devastatingly was a good example. The idea has become entrenched in the U.K. that the most recent waves of immigration, from Eastern Europe, the Middle East and South Asia, are a bad thing, a threat both to their jobs and their security.
SECOND NEXUS: Does Brexit signify a broader trend across Europe for disintegration of the EU project?
BEARY: Not disintegration but rather reconfiguration. It is increasingly obvious that when you have a club of more than two dozen sovereign countries, many of whom have existed as independent states for centuries, a unitary federal state – a kind of United States of Europe – will not work. What we will most likely see is a Europe of concentric circles where integration is greatest among an inner core of countries and the others on the outer rings are less integrated. Anti-EU sentiment will always be around. Given how much the EU does, it would be odd for it to have overwhelming support. We see a spike in it now because we have had a major migrant influx following on the back of a major economic malaise. But there is a strong enough political will among European leaders to keep the ship afloat.
SECOND NEXUS: Scotland now seeks new referendum over independence. What does this mean for the U.K. government?
BEARY: It is a nightmare – but one the government has brought upon itself. It transforms the Brexit negotiations into a multi-player chess game where it becomes hard to figure out who your opponent is, what your endgame is, and how to get there. Then there is a domino effect. The Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland are emboldened both by the Brexit vote (Northern Ireland voted Remain) and now by the new Scottish referendum. Sinn Fein has more seats than ever after this month’s Northern Ireland Assembly elections and is demanding a referendum on Irish reunification. These will be two thorns in the side of the U.K. government throughout the Brexit talks and beyond.