Brexit is ‘the ultimate test case of Europeanisation’

UK Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement at Downing Street in London, Britain 16 January 2019. [Photo: EPA-EFE/NEIL HALL]

Brexit may have paralysed and humiliated Britain’s government, parliament and political parties, but Anand Menon, director of The UK in a Changing Europe think tank is fascinated about what it means for the country’s politics.

“It is a unique experiment. You could look at it as the ultimate test case of ‘Europeanisation’”, says Menon, who is also a professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs at King’s College, London.

“How do you really know how far Europeanisation has gone? Well, trying to unravel it is the only way to find out.”

A former Oxford politics don who is equally comfortable talking football over a pint [he is a Leeds United supporter], Menon has become one of the go-to pundits on all-things Brexit.

But there is a difference.

While traditional think-tanks are reliant on private donors for cash – the right-wing Taxpayers’ Alliance has faced difficulties after repeatedly refusing to disclose who finances it – Menon’s team of university academics are funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), and the terms of their funding mean that they have to be impartial.

The ESRC funding allows around 25 teams to do Brexit-related research in universities up and down the UK – including the BBC’s elections expert, pollster John Curtice. Over 100 social scientists have contributed to their research projects.

“We are a network of academics. We tell people what the research says,” Menon told EURACTIV. “Part of the terms of our funding is that we’re not allowed to have a position. We don’t present the evidence with a hidden agenda to stop Brexit or promote Brexit, or anything else to do with Brexit.”

“We just say that if you’re going to do this, then we should be aware that this is what’s probably going to happen.”

It is the sudden desire for impartial information on the EU, following a referendum campaign during which accuracy and impartiality took a back seat in both the Leave and Remain campaigns, that allowed UK in a Changing Europe, which started work in 2015, to catch up on the competition.

“What happened was that the media suddenly had to garner a lot of knowledge about the EU, and they became quite suspicious of the existing think-tanks because they were associated with a particular faction, so they were all damned by their own histories,” Menon said.

Open Europe, for example, tied itself to David Cameron’s failed attempts to re-negotiate the UK’s EU membership terms. The pro-European Centre for European Reform, meanwhile, was seen as close to Tony Blair’s government. The Institute for Economic Affairs was, until recently, home to Shanker Singham, doyen for the hard Brexiteers such as David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson.

That created a space for his organisation, which is based out of King’s College, London.

He urges hard Brexiteers to be ‘honest’ about the massive economic disruption that a ‘no deal’ Brexit would bring, and pleads for similar candour from Remainers about the divisions that another referendum could cause.

“One of the things about Brexit is that we’ve developed a habit of playing the man not the ball, so some people say: ‘all academics are pro-EU, aren’t they’,” Menon said, adding that he gets “pigeon-holed as a Remainer by Leavers and a Leaver by Remainers” and still receives occasional angry letters from MPs.

“In general, I’m quite pleased and proud that we have established ourselves as a source of information that a surprisingly large chunk of opinion look out for and trust.”

The question on the lips of most Britons is ‘what happens next’, and Menon remarks that “we are choosing from a suite of implausible alternatives”.

That said, while Menon believes that Brexit being averted is “much more likely’ than a year ago, he puts the chances of Britain staying in the EU only at ‘about 15-20%,’ saying that another referendum is still the “hardest outcome to achieve.”

Nor is he convinced that a vote by MPs can force ‘no deal’ off the table.

“No deal is the legally prescribed outcome of us leaving without a deal on 29 March, the fact that MPs don’t like it is obviously legally neither here nor there.”

So what is the most likely Brexit end-game?

“I would still say that a version of this (Theresa May’s) deal going through is the most likely. The odds of any of these things happening are relatively low but we know that one of them is going to happen. Everything Corbyn says tells me that there is a degree of flexibility in the Labour position. At the bare minimum, it seems to me that the deal is far from dead.”

One of the many ironies of the Brexit process, Menon believes, is that the UK is only really discovering what it means to be an EU member as it seeks to leave.

That leaves the social science community in UK universities with a vital role to play.

“There is work to be done on the negotiation of future relations, the mechanics of transition, then there’s work on EU-UK relations, then there’s all the domestic stuff, such as what does leaving the EU mean for the regulatory system of the UK – an awful lot as it happens.

“How does a country claim control of parts of its economy and system that it didn’t use to?”

But while the Brexit crisis has convulsed the British political system, Menon says that he is “more interested in the post-Brexit Britain agenda than in the Brexit negotiations”.

He adds that one of the effects of the 2016 referendum has been to open up political debate in Britain.

“It has broadened that rather narrow, technocratic, centrist politics that we enjoyed before the referendum, where the range of policies was very narrow.”

“Think-tankers talk about something called the Overton window, which is the range of politically plausible policies available at any moment in time. The Overton window has now become a set of French doors. Both personally and professionally, I find that really exciting, which isn’t to say that I think Brexit is a good or a bad thing.”

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