By Markéta Šonková
On March 29, Theresa May triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. With such a step, she commenced a two-year process of the UK exiting the EU. This decision is also the result of last year’s referendum, known simply as Brexit, where the Leave campaign won by a slight, yet decided, margin. On April 11, the acting British Ambassador, Her Excellency Jan Thompson OBE, thanks to the invitation of the Student Section of IIPS, visited the Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University, and talked about Czech-UK relations and also about Brexit and the future of Scotland in the light of Brexit.
Since June 2016, there have been numerous talks about what the exit and future UK-EU relationship will look like. In these talks, and namely since the end of March 2017, two dilemmas have been recurring: hard vs. soft Brexit and the question of Scottish independence.
The Scots voted to stay in the UK in September 2014. Yet many have since then claimed that a big part of the decision was the intention to remain part of the EU. Thus, Brexit changed the game. Increasingly, there have been voices coming from Scotland that another referendum should be on the agenda soon, which was confirmed by Scottish PM Nicola Sturgeon. Such a step, however, has to be approved of by the Parliament in Westminster. Yet, May does not seem to be in favor of another referendum happening before 2019 – after the UK has completely left the EU.
Obviously, Brexit raises many questions – and not only domestically. Among others, there are growing concerns over the fate of European single market, free movement of people, security policy, education opportunities, as well as the fate of areas such as Gibraltar and the state of the Commonwealth as well. The students of Masaryk University had a chance to ask Her Majesty’s Ambassador all these questions and she openly addressed many of the aforementioned issues.
Leaving the EU but not Europe
It is safe to say that one of the main messages that resonated during Her Excellency’s visit was the emphasis on the fact that UK is leaving the EU, but not Europe. In fact, the UK hopes not only to continue having a strong relationship with the EU after it leaves, but also to strengthen some of the bilateral relationships with individual countries, including the Czech Republic. She further addressed the so-called “divorce” of the UK and EU, labeling it – rather than a divorce – a new chapter of the mutual relationship.
So what will the relationship look like once the Brexit is finalized? Obviously, it is hard to predict at such an early stage of the negotiations, but according to Madam Ambassador, Britons would like to agree on a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU, which could help replace the single market that the UK has been enjoying for 43 years as a part of the EU. Additionally, questions related to security are going to arise. Not only because the UK has the biggest defense budget in Europe, but also because it is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and thus shares many interests and values with other countries, which are not going to change after the UK leaves the EU. Yet, generally speaking, the shape of the security issues and foreign policy planning will very much depend on the result of the two-year negotiations. Nonetheless, new framework and systems, for example of information sharing and security planning, will have to be set out, as the UK will no longer be part of the single European system. Additionally, science, research, and innovations as well as education are areas which will have to be re-addressed, but it is in the mutual interest of the UK as well as the European countries to keep good relationships going.
One of the issues that resonated throughout the pre-Brexit dealings was the question of immigration. Her Excellency mentioned that net immigration to the UK runs at about 430,000 people every year which presents a lot of pressure on British social services and infrastructure. She, however, emphasized that the limits Britons voted for in terms of the free movement of people do not mean that the UK would not value people who immigrated to the UK, some of whom made, according to her, a great contribution to the society.
Unsurprisingly, the dilemma of soft vs. hard Brexit was discussed, too. One of the issues seems to be the lack of clear and generally accepted definition of either of these terms. Many seem to interpret “hard Brexit” as the UK definitively leaving the EU, the single market, the customs union, and other EU institutions, while “soft Brexit” could possibly mean staying in the single market as well as staying within some of the EU’s systems and mechanisms – an arrangement potentially resembling those that countries like Norway or Switzerland have.
Provided one understands the terms within these boundaries, then, Madam Ambassador noted that the UK has been clear that it would go for a scenario resembling hard Brexit. There have been voices within the EU saying that if the UK wanted free market and other benefits, then it would also have to agree with the free movement of people, which is something the UK wishes to have greater control over. Hence it seems more likely the UK shall pursue a hard Brexit, which, after all Theresa May confirmed. However, the UK has made it plain that it is not interested in replicating the existing models of countries like Norway or Switzerland, but rather in setting out a brand new model based on a wider and stronger relationship reflecting the fact that the UK has, after all, been part of the EU for more than 40 years.
The question of Scottish independence was also discussed. HMA Thompson mentioned that the SNP, as a result of Brexit, announced that they would like to have another referendum. That, however, did not meet with an approval in Westminster for two main reasons: partly because the Scots just had one referendum, but also, if Scotland left the UK now, they could not accurately assess what the prospects were to be for Scotland after Brexit is finalized. Thus, they would not know what they are actually voting between, as it is not known yet what their future would look like with the UK outside the EU. Additionally, in terms of trade, Scotland does four times as much trade with the rest of the UK as it does with the EU. So if one of the reasons for the independence vote are trade bonds with the EU, then there is a question mark hanging over whether independent Scotland could join the EU and also if such step would, in the light of the market structure, be more profitable compared to the trade with the rest of the UK. Therefore, she believes, there is not likely to be another independence referendum for the time being.
The discussion was closed with a rumination on why certain people might have voted the way they did in the July 2016 referendum, the discussion on Boris Johnson and his influence over current foreign policy of the UK, as well as the newly-established “Ministry for Brexit”, thus covering many different topics the MU students have been interested in. It is to be seen what the two-year plan brings, namely in the light of the snap general election that Theresa May announced on April 18 and scheduled for June 8, 2017, which can change the plans the Tories had set out.