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Expert Profile: Professor Laurie Buonanno on Brexit

Expert Profile: Professor Laurie Buonanno on Brexit

Posted: April 12, 2019

With the state of “Brexit” in the United Kingdom changing on a daily basis, one thing remains certain: There’s a lot of uncertainty.

But with the European Council’s decision on Wednesday to extend the deadline for the UK to leave the European Union to October 31, there’s now some much-needed breathing room for the UK’s Parliament and citizens to agree on how they would like to organize future relations with the EU.

And that uncertainty impacts the United States and Canada, said Laurie Buonanno, professor of political science at Buffalo State. Implications range from trade issues to gathering intelligence on the ground.

“Is this going to damage America's ability to know what's going on in Europe and influence the direction of policymaking in Brussels?,” Buonanno said, referring to the capital of Belgium. “That’s an unanswered question.”

Cameron’s Folly
The initial mistake was when then-Prime Minister David Cameron agreed to the referendum in 2016, Buonanno said.

“The UK doesn’t have a history of national referenda—this was just the third in the country’s history—the first being in 1975, called by the Labour Party as to whether the UK should stay in the European Economic Community, as the EU was then called,” she said. “The ’75 referendum was called just two years after the Conservative Party brought the UK into the EEC.”

The British people voted to stay in the EEC by a resounding margin in 1975. This time was different, but as in 1975, party politics was a driving factor, Buonanno said.

“Cameron thought calling a referendum would give him more power in the Conservative Party and silence the Euroskeptics,” she said. “So when he lost that referendum, he just disappeared. He's just completely disgraced in the UK and among Europeans because he caused this problem and then walked off to leave Theresa May to clean up the mess he caused.”

Buonanno made it clear that the mistake that was made was to hold a referendum on such a complex subject.

“I wonder what would happen if Washington authorized a referendum for Texas to break off from the U.S. or Upstate New York to break from downstate?,” she said.  

The point, she said, is that the electorate is not equipped to make direct policy decisions, which is why contemporary democracies are organized as representative rather than direct democracies.

The so-called “leavers” didn’t have a plan for actually leaving the EU, Buonanno said.

“They didn't expect to win,” she said. “They thought they were making a point. They thought they were scaring Europe into giving concessions and also taking a political stand for British sovereignty.”

She added, “It’s a fundamental tenet in public policymaking—when an idea’s time has come, have a plan in place and be confident there is deep political support for that plan.”

Theresa May's Plan
Current Prime Minister Theresa May submitted her Brexit plan to the House of Commons three times, and all three times it failed. May has now turned to the Labour Party in an attempt to build a cross-party consensus on a plan. The difficulty here is that the UK operates very differently than the United States, Buonanno said.

“We govern through a presidential system with separation of powers, but the UK’s government is organized around the Westminster System, where power is fused between Number 10 and the House of Commons,” she said. “Members of Parliament sit in government. UK parties contest Commons elections on their party manifestos.” 

The Brexit referendum took place in June 2016, but May called for an election in June 2017 attempting to increase the Tory majority in Commons.

“The Conservative Party’s manifesto calls for a complete exit, while Labour’s promised a Customs Union and keeping some elements of the single market, including labor protections,” she said. “So we have a situation where the two main parties contested the post-Brexit parliamentary elections on different scenarios of a post-Brexit UK.“   

This is a crucial point, Buonanno said, because since Commons “took control” of Brexit through “indicative voting,” no plan has achieved a majority. May and Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the UK Labour Party, are now conducting cross-party negotiations.

“One can see how complicated reaching compromise is not only because there are important differences in the EU-UK relationship promised in their party manifestos, but also the whole range of ideas within their own parties on the entire continuum anchored on one end by revoking Article 50 and the other, a hard Brexit—with a comprehensive trade agreement, customs union, a single market without a customs union, and a single market with a Customs Union as possibilities running from a harder to a softer Brexit,” she said.

Further complicating May’s task is that the 2017 election produced a “hung” Parliament, meaning no party has a majority. The result has been that to govern, the Conservatives were forced to form an alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which is Northern Ireland’s Unionist party and opposed to any Brexit that would create a “border” in the Irish Sea between the UK and Ireland.

Why Americans Should Care
Why should Americans care about Brexit? Buonanno suggested the EU’s stability and that of the UK are crucial for global peace and security. But she also emphasizes the US-UK “special relationship,” which she argues has been crucial in post-Cold War transatlantic relations.

Brexit has the potential to upset significant networks between civil servants, business, and scientists, Buonanno said. They’re all connected.

“British and Americans articulate a shared view of both economic and global affairs—and this shared vision that the British bring to EU governance will now be lost,” she said. “I think Americans need to ask. 'Who will be America’s new BFF in Brussels? Poland? The Netherlands? Germany? France?' In my estimation, none of these countries is a completely satisfactory substitute for the UK for reasons that are unique to each of these EU member states and its relationship with the U.S.”

In the long run, Buonanno said Brexit could hurt the UK, among other countries.

“I think it's going to weaken the US, Canada, and Europe in terms of global influence and regulatory standards setting and I think it's going to help Russia and China. For me that’s a risk I do not think the current presidential administration—which is pro-Brexit—has quite grasped.”

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