The UK parliament has started a much-anticipated five-day debate on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit proposal. Lawmakers will vote to reject or accept the deal next week, a decision that will have ripple effects in Europe as well as within British domestic politics. Cornell University experts weigh in on what those effects may be.
Ian Greer, senior research associate at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, studies labor and competition in welfare states, including the UK. He says that politicians who campaigned for Brexit and those who voted in its favor may ultimately have unleashed a socialist wave.
“It is easy to understand the disgust of the British people in the political and economic elites who urged them to vote against Brexit. But I find it ironic that it was the traditional party of government - the Conservatives - that channeled this energy to push the country into a position of such deep uncertainty.
“Conservatives have long fought elections by arguing that Labor governments with trade union support will bring chaos. Now they can take the blame for the choice the country faces, between a potentially catastrophic 'hard Brexit', continued uncertainty under May's deal, and backing out of Brexit altogether. The People's Vote campaign might restore the center ground in British politics and provide a common focus for diverse parts of society that oppose Brexit.
“If Brexit does take place, a Labor government led by Jeremy Corbyn might be elected soon after, committed to reversing austerity, rebuilding the welfare state, and giving workers a stronger voice at work. Most Brexiteers do not want socialism, but such a radically new direction in government may turn out to be the direct consequence of their actions.”
Christopher Way, professor of government and an expert in European politics and political economy, says that right-wing populism could be re-ignited should the parliament vote down May’s plan.
“In the chaotic Brexit debate, it now looks almost certain that May’s deal will be voted down on December 11. After that, movement is most likely in one of two directions: towards a second referendum or consideration of the ‘Norway Plus’ option, which would leave the United Kingdom in the single market and maintain labor mobility with EU countries.
“The big under-reported problem with either of these paths forward, or any move towards a ‘softer’ Brexit, is that they risk re-igniting right wing populism in the United Kingdom. Populists thrive on the narrative that the ‘corrupt elite’ are ignoring the will of the people.
“Either a second referendum or a Norway Plus option would play into the hands of the populists. They would pound the idea that the elite have ignored the people. They would argue that the elites have deliberately sabotaged the process to frighten the public into backing remain in a second referendum or accepting an extremely soft Brexit.
“The wave of right-wing populism in Europe has not yet crested and it could easily surge to new heights in the United Kingdom if elites are perceived as trying to undo or tame the results of the 2016 referendum.”