FP Guide

What to Read on Brexit

Ten things to read or listen to before the British Parliament votes on Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposed plan to leave the European Union.

A British protester stands in Parliament Square in Westminster, London, on Jan. 14.(Richard Baker / In Pictures/Getty Images)
A British protester stands in Parliament Square in Westminster, London, on Jan. 14.(Richard Baker / In Pictures/Getty Images)

As the United Kingdom prepares for Parliament’s momentous vote on Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposed Brexit deal this week, there is little certainty about what comes next. May has already delayed the vote on her plan to leave the European Union once, this past December, when it looked to be headed for certain defeat. Barring further delays, the vote will take place on Tuesday, Jan. 15, and insiders in London and Brussels are already planning their next moves as global markets remain on edge. If the prime minister’s deal is voted down, what happens next is anyone’s guess: Will May step down? Will Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn call a no-confidence vote? Will there be a general election? Or could there be a second referendum that reverses Britain’s 2016 decision to leave the EU?

Foreign Policy has been covering the Brexit debate and the U.K.-EU negotiations since the 2016 referendum. As the vote approaches and uncertainty reigns, here is a selection of 10 articles from the FP archives to help make sense of the chaos.

Much of the controversy surrounding Brexit can actually be traced to Ireland and the prospect of a hard border re-emerging between Northern Ireland (part of the United Kingdom) and the Republic of Ireland (an EU member)—a move many regard as a step back to the violent past when checkpoints dotted the now-invisible border. As the journalist Peter Geoghegan argued in December 2017, “The Irish government now finds itself in a unique position of power over its old colonial master.” The problem is that the “backstop”—an insurance mechanism to prevent the return of a hard border and keep both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland within the EU Customs Union in the event that the U.K. and EU do not reach an agreement—is anathema to the hard-line Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, which happens to hold 10 key seats in the British Parliament on which May depends for her narrow majority. In an October 2018 profile of the hard-line party, the journalist Newton Emerson explained where the party’s brinkmanship comes from and how it has gained so much influence in Westminster.

Other writers have accused the Leave campaign and the Conservative Party more broadly of engaging in magical thinking and selling their snake oil to the public and then failing to deliver. Robert Saunders of Queen Mary University wrote this past December that the Brexiteers subscribe to “a set of myths about British power that depend on a fundamental misunderstanding of its past.” Nick Cohen, one of Britain’s most trenchant columnists, took that argument a step further in July 2018, accusing the former foreign secretary and prime ministerial hopeful Boris Johnson of “building an alliance of snobs and mobs” and selling the myth that Britain can have its cake and eat it too, to a gullible public.

As May’s deal has encountered growing resistance within her own party and from the opposition, the option of a second referendum—once seen as impossible—now appears increasingly likely. Eloise Todd, one of those campaigning for a so-called People’s Vote, heads the organization Best for Britain. She joined FP’s First Person podcast last month to discuss the need for a rerun of the 2016 referendum. Tom Slater, the deputy editor at the British magazine Spiked, begs to differ. He insisted in an October 2018 piece that the campaign for a second referendum is an exercise in anti-democratic elitism that would undermine the people’s will. “Asking the people to vote on Brexit again now,” he wrote, “would be the equivalent of rerunning an election, in which one party won a clear majority, before allowing the victors to form a government.”

There is also a debate over the impact Brexit will have on the economy. The economist Simon Tilford contends that it would be an unmitigated disaster if Britain leaves the EU without a deal. “Following a no-deal Brexit, frictionless trade in goods would end overnight,” Tilford wrote this past October. “Everything coming into Britain would need to be checked at the border, but the country does not have the infrastructure to do this,” a situation that would lead to epic traffic jams, cause food and medicine shortages, and risk plunging the economy into recession. The sociologist Salvatore Babones is less gloomy. He argued the same month that “the economic costs of leaving the EU are much harder to anticipate, if they turn out to be costs at all” and that economists should not issue doomsday predictions about an inherently unknowable future.

As the political drama comes to a head this week, constitutional questions are taking on added importance. Vernon Bogdanor, a King’s College professor, in October 2018 laid out several of the possible paths forward if May’s deal fails and made the case that, whatever happens, the country and its liberal democratic institutions will survive the current uproar. Garvan Walshe, who used to work as an advisor to former Prime Minister David Cameron, is less optimistic. He argued last month that political paralysis has become the order of the day and that, as the vote looms, “The only certainty is that Britain’s political rewards now go to men and women who promote polarization, not compromise. And because the country is divided in two almost exactly equal halves, neither side can win decisively.”