Michael Emerson: Brexit business could even break up the United Kingdom itself

We interviewed Michael Emerson, the first EU Ambassador to the USSR and associate Senior Research Fellow at CEPS. In the first part we spoke about EU-Russia relations and integration of the wider European space with the European Union, but we could not talk about the Brexit with British, who was involved in research of it, when the end of the story is so close. How safety requirements of washing machines became a symbol of freedom, how Boris Johnson’s similar to Zelenskyy and how he isn’t, and what are consequences of the Brexit in wider context

I cannot help but ask you about the Brexit. Although it has been a long going process between the UK and the European Union, what was the cause of the Brexit? 

In my personal opinion, which I think is shared by a very large majority of professional people in the UK, the referendum was a huge constitutional and political mistake. The UK is meant to be a parliamentary democracy and is not used to referenda. Referendum cards invite the voter to say simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a specific question. Referenda always have the risk that people may be saying ‘no’ not to the precise question on the card, but they may be otherwise expressing protests about other matters. In the case of the Brexit referendum, there was some kind of general public dissatisfaction vote mixed up with the EU question. 

In addition, most advanced democracies have something called ‘constitutional majorities’ for voting changes to the Constitution, usually a two-thirds majority rather than a simple 50+1 majority. This referendum was conducted based on a simple majority because it was meant to be just consultative. When they got the 52% a small majority, the pro-Brexit political leaders said this was the will of the people (to quote the sacred words of Lenin). And this led to the most terrible degradation of public debate and political discourse in the UK, which for me with my many grey hairs I never witnessed before. I never imagined that people who opposed to Brexit would become branded in the popular press with headlines such as “traitors, and enemies of the people”. England is meant to be a gentle peace-loving country with a nice concept of gentlemanly behaviour. All this was thrown out the window; instead, it has become a vicious civil political Civil War. 

Theresa May was prime minister for nearly three years. The question was then what a future relationship with the EU should be. If you’re not a member state, but you’re very close to the EU, the natural relationship is to have a DCFTA with the EU. However, the Brexit ideologues wanted to ‘take back control’ from Brussels, because something like a DCFTA would mean being a ‘vassal state’. This is the language being used! Ask Norway, the most advanced enlightened country in the world, “Do you consider yourself to be a vassal state because you adopted European technical product standards for the safety of washing machines?” 

So, this class of ultra-Brexit zealots was very ignorant about the actual mechanisms in the European Union where much of this regulator policy is indeed about the safety requirements of washing machines and another 25,000 products. But do you want your washing machine to be more safe or less safe than the European washing machine, or do you just want it to be different and therefore more expensive to be a truly British safety standard? Well, the whole conversation becomes absurd.

If there would be a new, second referendum, it would probably go the other way, but we have a new populist prime minister, Boris Johnson, who is a quite witty and amusing man. Now, you know in Ukraine, they recently elected a comedian as president. Zelenskyy as a performer is quite a funny man. In his film “Servant of the people” Zelenskyy kicks IMF representatives out and says them to go to hell. However, it is innocent stuff because Zelenskyy is serious now. But the problem is that Boris Johnson is using virtually the same language to Brussels. Last week, he said, “I am like the Incredible Hulk that is breaking free from the shackles and the chains of Brussels”. Meanwhile, the EU asks him how precisely he would like to regulate the Northern Irish border question. He hasn’t answered, still playing the performer and the comedian while failing to be competent on the substance. This is a tragedy, such the Russian state-directed media question whether the European Union is falling apart. The Brexit process is now seen to be so painful that even the most eurosceptic of other member states say, “No, thank you!”

Has the Brexit changed something in Europe within the European Union (not technically, but rather ideologically)?

Yes, it has enhanced perceptions of the value of the European Union. And this has come through in the very high level of participation in the May 2019 European Parliament elections. Of course, there were other issues of migration, but this is part of it. Opinion polls have been regularly asking: do you have a favourable view of the European Union and European values? The biggest increases in favourable views in the latest polls have been in the UK because the people now understand more vividly than anywhere else the extent of the damage that this Brexit process entails.

So, is it some sort of ‘success’ for the EU? The Brexit is painful, but it helped the EU to consolidate and review the values.

Well, there are some collateral positives, but “successful”, no. The other thing that comes through is what the EU means to the people. Until recently, until the Brexit process became developed, discussion of European Affairs, particularly the UK, was all about whether we want these new environmental regulations or not, and so forth. Or “is there too much Brussels”? 

To reply to this question, let’s change the venue. I have two grandchildren, teenage girls, in a fine high school in London, where the class discusses Brexit. 25 members of the class, all of them, say Brexit is a terrible mistake. They say: “We have grown up all of our lives in Europe where we are free to travel, to study, to work, to live. This Europe is our legal right, and the Brexiteers want to take this right away from us”. And this is what the politically aware teenagers are saying today. 

The further dimension to the Brexit disaster is that it increases the probability that Scotland will have another referendum for independence, and Northern Ireland might conceivably see a majority preference to reunify with the Republic of Ireland. So, this Brexit business could even break up the United Kingdom itself.

So, it’s more than just Brexit. How do you see the end of this story?      

Well, we’re not at the end of the story yet, but we may know more by the end of October. However, your question leads into a very important institutional electoral issue. The UK has always had a single-member constituency voting system for the House of Commons. This is a system that gives results biased in favour of status quo major parties, whereas proportional representation allows for more fluidity and diversity in party structures. This whole Brexit saga can be traced to the refusal in London to understand the need for electoral reform to have more proportional representation. This would have avoided a situation in which the conservative party has managed to retain a monopoly of power and, within the conservative party, a certain faction that was able to retain power over this Brexit process. In the United Kingdom, we are surrounded by countries with more sophisticated voting systems: to the west, the Republic of Ireland has a very nice complex voting system, to the right, Belgium has another very nice complicated system. They both produce complicated coalition politics, which brings its problems. But in the British case, if there were an electoral system that generated a more diverse political structure, there would have been no majority for going ahead with a referendum over Brexit.

At present the government itself has no majority, this is a minority government. So, there has to be a general election very soon. One party, the Liberal Democrats, radicalizes its position. It is a party who on day one if they win power, they will ‘revoke Article 50’, i.e. to stop the Brexit process. This party has about 20% support, like the Labour party, but its support is evenly spread across the country. So, they come second in many constituencies and therefore get few seats in the Parliament. They haven’t been able to get a breakthrough because of this electrical system bias.

The default situation is on the 31st of October the UK is ‘out’. If there’s a negotiated deal by then, there would at least be an orderly Brexit. But if there’s ‘no deal’, it would be an incredibly brutal rupture of relations. The parliament has already, therefore, voted a law, which says if there is no deal by mid-October, the government must request a further delay before Brexit day, and then to have a general election, albeit still with the dysfunctional electoral voting system. 

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