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Do trade and security matters provide an opportunity to get Brexit talks moving again?

Isabelle Riepe (University of Warwick) 

On 11th October 2017 the department of PAIS (Politics and International studies) held a roundtable talk titled ‘The Brexit Talks: Progress and Implications’. The panel, presented by Tom Long, included Andreas Murr, who spoke about electoral implications of Brexit and Gabriel Siles-Brügge, talking about trade. Both are associate professors at PAIS. The guest panellist was Helena Farrand-Carrapico, co-director of the Aston Centre for Europe, from Aston University, Birmingham, who talked about implications of Brexit on internal security.

The talk was held in the context of the current talks between the UK and the EU on a future deal on the UK’s exit from the European Union. Prime Minister Theresa May’s recent Florence Speech aimed to clarify the UK’s stand on Brexit and its future relationship with Europe. The speech intended to breathe a new dynamic into the talks, which had drifted into a stalemate over the summer. However, within the Conservative Party opposing views on how the final Brexit deal should look are creating a schism within the party, leaving the public confused on how Brexit and domestic politics will progress from now.


Andreas Murr talked about the electoral implications of Brexit. His research framework consisted of three criteria: Unity, Position, and Competence which all influence voter behaviour. He argued that voters mistrust disunited parties, they choose parties close to their own political viewpoints and ideas, and they want parties that keep their promises, deliver good policy outcomes and work with realistic propositions. He concluded that in the current shifting political landscape the following observations and claims can be made:

First, the Conservative Party will disintegrate further through rivalry within the party on attitudes towards Brexit, while Labour has successfully excluded Brexit from its public discussion and conference which leads to less obvious disunity in the party.

Second, based on data from the British Social Attitude Survey, it can be concluded that Britain has shifted towards the centre-left economically and socially. One explanation given was the austerity politics – reduction of public spending by the government – of the last few years, implying that people wanted more public spending on institutions like the NHS. Furthermore, contrary to what has been suggested Britons have overall become more libertarian than authoritarian in 2016 compared to 2010, which means that people want less intervention into their private lives from the state. However, this is truer for London than for the whole of Britain. This suggests also a potential North – South divide. The North and Midlands used to have similar levels of libertarianism to London in 2010, now, while overall, levels of libertarianism have increased, London has increased significantly more than the North and the Midlands.

Third, the Tory party is not faring well in terms of competence in relation to the Brexit negotiations. Downgraded UK credit ratings and the now infamous David Davis and Michel Barnier picture at the Brexit talks suggest to the public that the government has shown little competence in handling Brexit and its consequences.

Fourth, providing a prediction for the 2022 election is impossible currently, but the Conservative Party could experience a unifying momentum once a Brexit deal has been made. Murr argued that voters tend to have little long-term memory and are much more influenced by events in the last couple of years or even months before an election, which suggests that 2019 and after will be of more significance for a 2022 election.


Gabriel Siles-Brügge, Parliamentary Academic Fellow with the UK House of Commons International Trade Committee, provided insight on future trading plans of the UK after Brexit. He mentioned that leading Brexiteers put much emphasis on future trade deals during the referendum, but that ‘realism is starting to dawn in Whitehall.’ Not much change is intended, as the most recent white paper on trade and customs – a written statement by the government on specific issues – proclaims. A potential two-year transition period, as suggested by the PM in her Florence Speech, must include EU rules and regulations and the common external tariff. This means that the UK would not fully leave the EU after 2019. A special focus, however, lies now on third countries outside the EU and potential new Free Trade Areas (FTAs). FTAs consist of a group of countries that have agreed on common rules on trading and are consequently trading freely with each other, examples are the EU or the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Canada, the US and Mexico. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) is now challenging Britain’s proposal to continue its membership of the WTO on the terms based on its current membership of the EU. This will mean that the UK will need to come up with its own trade defence system and the decision to make new FTAs, leave or renew already existing ones. The issue of trade has become inherently political and it is an increasingly discussed and debated topic.

Siles-Brügge identified several cautions relating to leaving the EU. The UK would be caught between the US and EU. These are two big actors of trade, who regulate trade very differently. This means that moving closer to one might cause problems in relations to the other. An example for this could be chlorinated chickens: While the US cannot see scientifically proven health issues for consumers to not chlorinate their chickens, the EU’s argument is based more on the farming of animals and the fact that chlorinating chickens does not support prevention of diseases in livestock. EU trade regulatory is in parts less clear on evidence than the US’s.

Siles-Brügge also claimed there was a lack of parliamentary scrutiny in the Brexit talks, adding that Parliament currently was only able to delay, but should be able to properly block proposals in the future. He called for more transparency on the government’s side in order to empower parliamentary influence on Brexit.


Helena Farrand-Carrapico is working on an internal security and Brexit project, which has recently published a report. Through Ms May’s Lancaster speech at the beginning of the year and the terror attacks in spring of this year, discourse on internal security has become prominent. During the referendum campaign there was no debate on internal security and the consequences of Brexit. Farrand-Carrapico talked about the UKs special relationship to the EU’s area of freedom, security and justice (ASFJ) to highlight implications of Brexit on British and European security issues. The ASFJ is a project created by the EU in 1999 aimed at enhancing liberty and justice within a secure European area. The UK participates selectively in the ASFJ having acquired the right to opt-out of certain matters, where it feels these could infringe its sovereignty or national interest. Protocol 36 of the Lisbon Treaty from 2007 was highlighted by Farrand-Carrapico, where she described the British opt-out out of 130 measures followed later by an opt-in of 35 of the Protocol's measures as a ‘mini-Brexit’. In this case, the government decided to opt out of measures concerning judicial and police cooperation, but upon enquiring into civil services realised that at least 35 measures were absolutely essential for the country.

This ‘cherry-picking’ arrangement has worked out well for the UK, leading to current arrangements widely matching the UK’s national preferences. Even the other EU member states – commonly referred to as EU27 – accepted the UK’s selective participation in most cases. That is also what the White Paper on Brexit and security states, but it continues to be rather vague on the future access to European databases and instruments as well as necessary steps to be taken for new treaties on security. If the UK leaves the EU and access to the ASFJ, it would lose access to databases and other services and policies which is a major problem. The UK is leading actor in security and has helped the EU advance immensely through its strong intelligence services and proposals on cyber security. Both sides have interest to remain close to the status quo. Farrand-Carrapico added, that, in order to find a solution to this dilemma, she wishes for more political will and legal imagination to find solutions on security issues and policies in future talks.


Questions and debate were plentiful ranging across a range of issues and topics. Interesting highlights included the debate on the UK’s fall-back onto the WTO and Interpol (International police organisation aiming at international police cooperation) after leaving the EU, which includes leaving Europol the European police cooperation organisation. Panellists answered, that the EU standards regarding both trade and security have been so much more detailed and operational in the EU area that WTO and Interpol will mean significant decrease of all standards the UK is used to at the moment.

A member of the audience raised the disconnection between communicators: The UK’s and EU’s negotiators, so it seems, speak different languages regarding the Brexit process and its outcome: David Davis and Michel Barnier are speaking rather about each other to their respective audiences – the British people respectively the EU27 – than to each other. The negotiation situation currently wavers between a win-lose approach – one side wins, the other loses - against a problem-solving – both sides cooperate to find a solution – approach. Additionally, it remains open whether the negotiations will continue to be filled by technocratic terms or move onto more politicised ground. Matters regarding the EU are often phrased and presented in highly specialised language, which needs sufficient knowledge about the EU’s political, economic and social workings to be understood properly. Therefore, the EU is often described as a technocratic body, which suggests that it is quite hard for someone who does not have the necessary background knowledge on the EU’s functions understand how the European Union works. Politicised ground in this context means, discussion based on less complex ground, where both sides have similar levels of knowledge and discussion can be held on equal grounds. While the EU and UK are very much on the same page on security matters, the matter of what kind of audience politicians on both sides operate with is different. The complexity of the EU stands in stark contrast with the simple yes-no answer voters in Britain have been presented with last year: Things are not as simple as they seemed.

The same matters for the so called ‘no-deal’ of having a clear break from the EU opening up new space for British regulatory policies on trade and professional services. In reality, ‘no deal’ is nearly impossible. Agreements have to be made, especially on matters like security or aviation for example, otherwise the British police and secret service will be blind and aeroplanes will remain on tarmacs.

Another noteworthy thing to take away from the Q&A was, that public opinion at times is very unpredictable and that its shifts in the last six years, especially on the libertarian – authoritarian scale are quite remarkable. Volatile mood swings especially in context of referenda show that the view on politics even on a national level differs between assumptions and ideas of the ‘simple people’ in their everyday lives and their MPs working in high politics.

Some questions remain: Why are more and more referenda held that have such big impact politically, economically and socially and thus, in how far will referenda have a future in or in how far are they the future of present day politics?


In summary, the PAIS roundtable touched upon a variety of very interesting and very important topics on the matter of Brexit talks. While high politics agree that security concerns and trade affairs should suffer as little change as possible, it has become obvious that the technocracy and complexity surrounding the EU and EU-membership have alienated – distanced – not only the public from its politicians but also British politicians from EU politicians. In order to solve this problem a common ground for discussion has to be found: Trade and security matters might provide such an opportunity to get the talks moving again.


Image: © Number 10, Flickr