Julie Smith: Brexit negotiations have been damaging for both sides

RevDem editor Michal Matlak interviewed Professor Julie Smith*, Baroness of Newnham, who is a Liberal Democrat parliamentarian in the British House of Lords. They discuss referendums, the causes and outcomes of Brexit, how the negotiation strategies of both the EU and UK could have been improved, the likelihood of the UK returning to the EU in the future, and how the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated post-Brexit evaluations.

Michał Matlak You recently edited a book about referendums, The Palgrave Handbook of European Referendums, published this year. This is a very rich book providing empirically rich analysis of referendums in Europe from the end of the World War II until the present. Of course, one of the most important subjects of this conversation would be Brexit.

But, before we move on to Brexit, I’d like to ask you a more general question about referendums. Right now, there’s a lot of talk on how to strengthen our democracies because they are in crisis in different parts of the world, and you looked carefully with the team of scholars at various referendums. Can a referendum be seen as a way to strengthen democracy? 

Julie Smith: Referendums can have benefits and can be an important tool of democracy, but they can also be abused. I think maybe a country like Ireland has learned to use the referendum device very effectively. In Ireland there is a constitutional requirement to hold a referendum in certain circumstances, often linked to European integration, but not always.

So, if the constitution is going to be impacted by something, such as treaty reform in the European Union, or introducing the right to divorce, abortion, or equal marriage, these have all been things that have required a referendum. 

Because both the Irish people and the Irish political elite have become used to using referendums, they’re used in a way that is both effective and focused, and people have learned how to campaign.

Sometimes, the Irish people have been asked to vote a second time. On the British side of the Irish Sea that is viewed with horror, and a belief that somehow Irish citizens have been ignored, their views, their wishes, have been trampled upon, but in fact, what’s happens in Ireland is that there have been further discussions. There have been citizens’ assemblies and there have been opportunities for people to explore what is really intended by a referendum or by a treaty reform. And when they voted a second time, people have felt that maybe they have more information, so public opinion in Ireland has actually viewed this quite positively. So that’s the good model. That is case where you can actually ask citizens to engage in a direct choice on maybe a constitutional matter, maybe something linked to social policy. 

Where there are greater problems is when political leaders decide to have referendums for domestic purposes, perhaps to try and strengthen their own hand.

There were two cases that stand out. One is Greece in 2015, where the Prime Minister Alexander Tsipras was keen to have a referendum on the bailout that was being offered. Unfortunately, the referendum was offered at a week’s notice, and normally you want time for the campaigners to make their case, and there needs to be clarity of what their offer is. In this case, people had a week. By the time citizens got to vote on the bailout deal that had been offered, it was no longer on the table. The citizens then said, no, we don’t want this bailout, and the Greek Prime Minister could say to the other Europeans, well, look, my people don’t want this. It strengthened his hand on the face of it in negotiations, but in reality the deal that Greece was finally offered and accepted was not as good as the one that was rejected in the referendum. 

Perhaps a stronger case, or a further case in that regard, is Viktor Orbán calling a referendum on migration matters. And in this case, there was a low turnout, so he didn’t necessarily get quite the result he was expecting. But what we see is that a referendum can be called because a leader wants to demonstrate their own strengths, sometimes to try and challenge the European Union. And so, is that something that is really helping the citizens articulate their views? Perhaps not. It can be a way of leaders trying to demonstrate their own strengths. 

Speaking of the second referendum: I can imagine that you must have been in favor of the second referendum for Brexit. Was this the case? And if yes, why?

I was in a slightly strange position because I am a Liberal Democrat parliamentarian, and my party very quickly came out in favor of a second referendum. But I had said very explicitly during debates before the actual vote on the 23rd of June 2016, that if there were a vote to leave, then that’s actually what would happen. It wouldn’t be the opportunity just to keep rehearsing the debates and keep voting. So initially, I abstained on the vote to trigger Article 50. My Liberal Democrat colleagues in the main voted against, precisely because there wasn’t an opportunity in the legislation to have a second referendum. 

The longer we went on after the referendum, however, the more persuaded I was about the desirability of another vote. I think the deal we’ve ended up with on Brexit isn’t in the UK national interest. I wish there’d been a second referendum. The problem is that at the time that a second referendum might’ve happened, the full implications of Brexit still weren’t clear, and we might well have got a second vote to leave. If we were to have a vote now on whether Brexit was the right thing to do, looking at empty shelves in the UK, looking at gas prices, looking at the lack of road hauliers, I think maybe the vote would be a bit different.  

Do you think, maybe as a political scientist, that there is this possibility of a British return to the European Union? Does this perspective exist?

Not immediately. Rejoining the European Union would obviously be under Article 49, requiring the UK to abide by all the criteria for joining: democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, all of which we would say we meet, but then there are issues like joining the common currency. As a member state, the UK had an opt out as Denmark has. No other state legally has an opt out from economic and monetary union. 

I think it’s inconceivable that the UK would be allowed to rejoin and have the sort of opt-outs that we had while we were members before. So, I think there will be some real challenges and I think it would take a real hit to the British economy for people to be calling to go back in. 

So, yes, most Liberal Democrats and some others would still like to rejoin as soon as possible, but is it realistic to go into the next election in 2023/24 saying we must rejoin? That’s probably not going to be the best rallying call immediately, but could it happen in my lifetime? Possibly. Obviously, this is a podcast and you can’t see me. I’m 52 for anybody that’s interested. So, could it happen in my lifetime? Yes. Could it happen within the next generation or two generations? Quite possibly, but 

I think it will take a generational change in political leadership, not just in the UK, but elsewhere in the European Union, because the Brexit negotiations have been quite damaging on all sides. 

And at the moment, we have a government with this rhetoric of “global Britain” that seems to be much keener to work across the Atlantic and down to the Southern hemisphere than with our closest neighbors who still share our closest interests. 

If we speak of the British relationship with the EU, many people hoped during negotiations that we would end up with a closer relationship. We hoped for a kind of deep association agreement. Do you think that this could be the first step? Is this a way to go? 

It would certainly be a very sensible way to go. Part of the problem now isn’t just the United Kingdom. I think there’s been a sense on both sides of the channel of wanting to have very clear lines of demarcation. And while I completely understand that for the European Union the integrity of the single market is crucial, I think we need on both sides to move away from our embedded positions and begin to think about what is in the interests of the UK and the European Union, because working collaboratively could have mutual benefits. That would be not just in the economic sphere, but obviously in terms of security, cross-border issues, and in particular issues across the channel in terms of migrant flows. 

The tensions in bilateral relations between the UK and France haven’t helped in recent months. So, I think my first call to the government would be that we need to strengthen and reinforce the bilateral relations with France, and obviously we need to be working closely with the new German government as well.

If we can then rebuild at a multilateral level, then that’s clearly desirable. But unfortunately, the government seems to be prioritizing agreements that are much further afield at the moment. Globally coming back with trade deals that probably financially aren’t worth nearly as much as a good deal with the European Union, but which symbolically now seem to be making headlines.

You have been following European politics and Brexit for many years. I remember discussions in the EU after the decision on Brexit was taken, and the discussions started actually with Jean-Claude Juncker who said that the EU could have done some things better before the British referendum. What is your take on this? 

I think part of the problem was that David Cameron offered a referendum and a renegotiation before fully thinking through what his options were. It would have been possible to have a referendum on, “Are you happy with our terms of membership or should we renegotiate?” And then “on the basis of a renegotiated package, should we stay on this basis or leave?” for example. So, two referendums in series, not one negating the other, but one following the initial poll authorizing the renegotiation saying this is a phased issue. By having the referendum on the basis of a renegotiation, he boxed himself in. Further, by saying, “I want the referendum by the end of 2017” and then bringing it forward to June 2016, he left barely a year between the general election and the referendum.

It took six months from the general election of May 2015 until November 2015 for Cameron even to say what he wanted in terms of the renegotiation, and then just three months were available for those negotiations. There wasn’t really much opportunity for the British to explain what they wanted and for the European Union to come to some sort of agreement.

I think David Cameron got the tactics wrong. The EU 27 knew that time was very tight, and so they had the upper hand. That was even more the case with the actual Brexit negotiations. But I think if Cameron had played it slightly differently there would have been a little bit more scope to negotiate.

I also remember Norbert Röttgen, as chairman of the German Foreign Affairs Committee, really pointing out that on some issues like benefits, the problem was actually on the UK side. There was no need to give benefits to EU citizens exercising their free-movement rights in the UK if we had a slightly different approach to contributions in the UK. So, there could have been ways in which some of the issues that became politicized in the UK could have been diffused by domestic policy, not necessarily EU-level policy. At that stage before the referendum, the mistakes were probably on the UK side. 

David Cameron boxed himself into a corner, which Theresa May then did as well because she triggered Article 50 at a time essentially of the EU’s choosing, rather than necessarily in the British interest, because triggering Article 50 in March 2017 allowed for official departure in March 2019 ahead of the next European Parliament elections. 

She could have said, well, I’m not going to trigger Article 50 until I’ve got a better sense of what’s going to be on the table. And the UK, I think, gave away a lot of cards at that point.

You make this distinction about the attitude of the EU before and after the referendum. What could the EU have done better after the referendum?

I think from an EU perspective, there was clarity from day one that they were going to speak with one voice – the EU of 27 spoke with one voice, not 27. I think that was a very good move and it had a variety of strengths. It meant that on one side of the negotiating table there was clarity. On the UK side, there wasn’t. That gave the EU strength in the negotiations. It also ensured that other member states couldn’t be picked off. There couldn’t be moves towards Frexit, or Polexit, or other departures. That was good.

However, the EU’s insistence that departure had to be negotiated before the future relationship, I think was incredibly unhelpful, because there is nothing in the treaty that says the two must be sequential. 

The withdrawal agreement had to take the future relationship into consideration, but the two could have been negotiated in parallel. Some of the issues about free movement of people, about the situation in Northern Ireland, and about financial contributions, could logically all have been negotiated as part of the future relationship. That might have ensured that we didn’t have such deeply entrenched positions before the actual withdrawal. I think if those two had been negotiated in parallel, we might have had a better deal for EU citizens. We might have had a better arrangement in terms of Northern Ireland as well. 

I interviewed some time ago Monsieur Barnier, and he blamed British imperial nostalgia for Brexit. Do you think that could have been one of the reasons? And, to be fair, he said the second reason was economic and symbolic position of large groups within British society who blamed Brussels for this position.

Would this be the same, Monsieur Barnier who went down and spoke in Nice, I think it was nice a few weeks ago, and talked about sovereignty and expressed concerns about the European Court?

It was a surprise for many of us.

I would say that for many sovereignty was an issue. 

For me as a liberal, both small and large “L” liberal, I find the concept of sovereignty quite difficult to get excited about. Cooperation across borders makes far more sense to me than sovereignty. 

And I’m not sure that if you asked most British citizens whether they get up in the morning and think about sovereignty they would say yes. But, when you get into the language that was very cleverly used by the Leave campaign of taking back control, that followed on from decades of a drip, drip of Euroscepticism, particularly in the print media, about the fact that they, Brussels, were making decisions. This was quite effective.

So, it wasn’t just nostalgia. I think the narrative of taking back control, linked to sovereignty, was a very clever way of campaigning. There were some who were nostalgic. There were some who were harking back 200 years to the time when Britannia ruled the waves, which for others was really quite unpleasant. So, there was that real harking back. Then, there was a sense of harking back to the 1950s, which for those who remember that time seem to be a good place to hark back to. For those of us who remember the 1970s, just at the time of the UK going into the Common Market, that was a time you couldn’t be nostalgic about.

It was a miserable time when there was a three-day week, when there were indeed gaps on the shelves and high energy prices. That was one of the reasons that I certainly didn’t think we should go back to the time outside of the European Union. I did say that during the referendum. Unfortunately, most people didn’t seem to accept that. Tthey had, I think, forgotten the UK’s economic situation before joining.

So, the nostalgia was warm and a bit sepia-tinged and went back to times long ago, not necessarily thinking about the reality just before we joined the Common Market, and the reality of where we are now seems to be a lot closer to the 1970s than those perhaps happier days of the 1950s. So, a bit of nostalgia, but also a clever deployment of rhetoric linked to sovereignty, which Monsieur Barnier himself seems to have understood. 

We are watching in Europe a transformation of liberal parties. Probably strengthened by the election of Emmanuel Macron. Many liberals that I watch, for example, in the European Parliament, are now much more sensitive to social issues. I would say that there is a clear move from a very neo-liberal position to a more socially sensitive. Do you observe such a change in the Liberal-Democratic Party? Or maybe there was never an issue, although I think that when you governed with the Conservatives, you were seen as a pretty neo-liberal party. 

The British Liberal Democrats were a left-of-center party, and during the period of New Labour, we positioned ourselves to the left of New Labour. There were certain members of parliament who were in government between 2010-15 who do have a much more neo-liberal perspective, including David Laws, who was briefly in government, and perhaps including Nick Clegg, although I think Nick’s liberalism was much more about identity than it was about economics. 

We’re going back to a more, if I can call it this, social democrat approach to economics currently. That five years in government allowed us to bring in some policies, including free childcare, things that were very important, shared parental leave, but actually left us with a legacy of people saying, “oh, they supported raising tuition fees.” Well, yes, but so did the conservatives, and the people that introduced tuition fees were the Labour party, but the one party that’s been tarred with this ever since is the Liberal Democrats. We’re still working to remind people of why the Liberal Democrats matter and the approach is shifting back to a slightly more centrist, less economically liberal perspective. 

In cooperation with Hannah Vos

*Julie Smith is a Professor European Politics in the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge University, where she was Director of the European Centre from 2013 to 2019. She is Fellow in Politics and Post-graduate Tutor at Robinson College, Cambridge. Professor Smith studied politics, philosophy, and economics at Oxford University. She obtained her PhD in politics at Saint Antony’s College in Oxford. 

She was a Hanseatic Scholar in Hamburg and prior to moving to Cambridge, she taught in the International Relations and European Studies Department of CEU in Budapest, where we are right now actually. As Baroness Smith of Newnham, she sits on the Liberal Democrat bench in the House of Lords, where she led the Liberal Democrats on the European referendum bill in 2015, and served on the International Relations and Defense Committee from 2016 to 2021. She is the Liberal Democrat Defence Spokesperson in the House of Lords. She was also head of the European Program at Chatham House from 1999-2003. 

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