Brexit and the British Election: What Happens Next

by Tianxing Cao and Abigail Mullin

On December 6, the Institute of European Studies and the Center for British Studies were pleased to welcome back visiting scholar David Whineray for a second lecture on Brexit and the general election in the United Kingdom. Whineray is a Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC, and his areas of expertise include transatlantic relations and US and UK foreign policy.

Whineray began by revisiting the UK’s initial entry into the European Union, noting that the UK had first entered into the European Community in 1972 both due to economic incentives and political exigence vis-à-vis the gradual dismantling of the global British empire. He then examined the events surrounding the UK’s decision to exit the EU, including incentives behind former Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to call for a Brexit referendum. The referendum, as a result of a controversial but well-run “Leave” campaign, culminated in the UK formally pursuing Brexit, against Cameron’s expectations. Issues that fueled the “Leave” sentiment, as cited by Whineray, included immigration, the perceived imbalance between the UK's contribution to the EU and what it gets in return, and the revival of a 1950s Churchill outlook favoring British independence and exceptionalism. These reasons were enough to rally enough of the population behind the “Leave” cause, despite broad disapproval from the established elite, the urban population, and young people. 

Whineray proceeded to look at current sentiments surrounding Brexit and its future, especially within the context of the Parliamentary election on December 12. He predicted that the Conservatives had the best shot at forming a majority and proceeding with a renegotiated deal, while the possibility of a Labor win could have resulted in a second referendum. Less probable was the chance of the Liberal Democrats forming a government to reverse Brexit or a no-deal exit by the Brexit Party. Elaborating on the possible outcomes of the election, as well as the effects of Brexit, Whineray discussed the rights of UK citizens living abroad if the British Government and the European Union are able to reach a deal, and the effect of a “Hard Brexit” on immigrants in the UK and British emigrants living and working in Europe. Whineray also addressed the effect of Brexit on a possible UK-US trade agreement, the border in Northern Ireland, and political ramifications within the UK itself.