Academics on Brexit: Phony War is Over


Warsaw 1939
“Long live England” proclaim citizens in 1939 Warsaw in an earlier crisis in which Britain had to decide how closely to tie itself to Continental Europe.

“The phony war is over.”

So starts a commentary in the May issue of the National Institute Economic Review in which Angus Armstrong and Jonathan Portes which reviews the economic arguments surrounding Britain’s referendum on staying in the European Union this week, a referendum that comes after decades of Euroskeptical sniping. Their comparison is to the “phony war” that followed Britain and France’s declaration of war on Nazi Germany which saw the belligerents mostly firing words –until Hitler invaded France.

NIER coverThey continue, “A decision by the British people to vote to leave will alter the course of both British and European history. While this is fundamentally a political choice, economic consequences are rightly central to the debate.”

Armstrong and Portes’ measured conclusion – that the risks of remaining in the EU are fewer than the risks of exiting – is built on a series of articles appearing in the special issue that deal with influence and clout; migration and free movement; financial services; and the real cost in pounds sterling to being a member of the club. The issue includes three articles looking at the prospects for the United Kingdom’s economy, including the short-term and long-term prognosis from staying goodbye.

The mushiness of so much of the British exit, or Brexit, debate is acknowledged by these authors, such as Iain Begg in looking at Britain’s contribution to the EU, who notes that the same numbers get tortured by different people for their own ends. Nonetheless, he writes that “there are interpretations which are reasonable and those which are ‘spun’ to make political points, even though they are – bluntly – an abuse of statistics.” Nonetheless, a clear-eyed, or at least a clearer-eyed, approach does yield some sort of the actionable conclusion.

“A normative judgement about whether what the UK’s contribution (however measured) to the EU budget could be better spent on other public projects or whether the ‘membership fee’ yields sufficient benefits to be justified is beyond the scope of this paper. But the evidence is clear that, although it is a net contributor to an extent comparable with several other Member States of a similar level of prosperity, the UK does not face an unfair share of the burden of the gross costs of paying for Europe.”

Portes, for his part, addresses the elephant in the Brexit polling station: immigration. He notes that immigration was essentially a non-issue in 1975 when Britain also voted on remaining in the EU, even though immigration itself from the non-white Commonwealth nations has always had a whiff of brimstone to it. In a wide-ranging discussion on immigration and the free movement of workers, Portes acknowledges that real (i.e., mostly un-spun) numbers still have the power to surprise in this debate: “To the considerable surprise of many economists, including this author, there is now a clear consensus that even in the short term EU migration does not appear to have had a negative impact on the employment outcomes of UK natives.”

Rather than offer a prescription for voters, however, Portes instead offers thoughtful ideas for what an exclusively British immigration policy might look like post-Brexit, with options for a stricter regime and a (relatively more) liberal one. And yet, he admits his forecast remains cloudy:

While the economic impacts of recent EU migration appear to have been relatively benign – even for the low paid and low skilled – it remains the most important issue for many, perhaps most, likely voters, and the ‘renegotiation’, which focused on the largely irrelevant issue of ‘benefit tourism’, has not changed that. This means that a vote to Remain will unequivocally be a vote for the status quo in this area. A vote to Leave, however, will take us into new territory for UK immigration policy, with potentially significant consequences; as yet, we have almost no detail on what those might be.

This special issue is one of a relatively large body of academic work, essentially synthesized on the fly, informing the debate. Here we’ll look at three specific examples, all published in journals produced by SAGE Publishing.

Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine

JRSM coverIn “How would a decision to leave the European Union affect medical research and health in the United Kingdom?” some 17 authors from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London argue that “If we want to protect the health of our citizens, healthcare provision, medical research and teaching, and the continued world-leading status of the top universities in the United Kingdom, then the logical vote in the referendum on 23 June is one that ensures we stay a full member of the European Union.”

Their essay, with Azeem Majeed as lead author, makes a similar point to Armstrong and Portes above: Britain will muddle through regardless of the vote, but the muddling we know by staying in appears to be better the muddling we don’t know. It measures the muddle by looking specifically at the economic and workforce shockwaves that would roil National Health and the cost of severing EU-wide medical research initiatives. The authors find that the long arm of Brussels actually provides more of an embrace than a punch to Britain.

To extend the metaphor, they also suggest that those limbs might keep  a breakaway Britain at arms length after the vote, with a resultant loss greater than that of remaining in the EU. Plus, they note, the larger EU would still call a tune that Britain—as a practical matter – would dance to, but without recourse to suggesting a new song.

European Journal of Political Theory


EJPT coverThis journal, founded in 2002, has grown up as the European Union has matured, write Enzo Rossi and Matt Sleat in the introduction to a special issue of a dozen past pieces that help contextualize the Brexit vote and what allowed it to arise. Among those articles is John Erik Fossum’s exploration of “The European Union: In Search of an Identity.” That article from 2003 and focused on the then 3-year old Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union opens with this line: “The European Union’s nature and status are highly contested. One of the most hotly contested issues pertains to whether the EU can develop a sense of allegiance that is sufficient to sustain it as a legitimate entity” and closes with this one: “The European experiment appears premised on the notion that political allegiances can be fostered by legal and political means. The question that requires further consideration is how far this extends and how permissive of diversity it is.”

In another prescient article, Canadian academic Adam Chalmers discussed “Refiguring the European Union’s Historical Dimension” and how any attempt to craft a trans-state sense of shared history “must accord with the existing limits set by post and/or transnationalism itself.” Chalmers adds — with a view toward that history which is shared — “[T}he history of postnationalism, acting to unite Europeans under the idea of being ‘European’, is negative.”

Like many of the articles in the special issue, it pays homage to a Continental intellectual, Jürgen Habermas, whose ‘cosmopolitan consciousness’ rightly or wrongly helps spotlight fault lines between the UK and the EU experience rather than paper them over.

Of particular interest for Social Science Space readers is another article from 2003, “Legitimizing the Euro-’Polity’ and its ‘Regime’: The Normative Turn in EU Studies,” by Richard Bellamy and Dario Castiglione. It takes the issues of sovereignty and legitimacy by its horns, and argues in the effort to achieve external legitimacy the union was missing boat on cementing internal legitimacy. “The result is that the EU conforms neither to the materialist realism of many theorists of integration nor the high idealism of certain European federalists. Both descriptively and prescriptively it lies somewhere in between.