“Out of sight – out of the EU” – the Valdai Club held an expert discussion with this expressive title on March 29, the day when the United Kingdom had originally been slated to leave the European Union, according to a previous arrangement. However, something went wrong. Why did the UK’s plans change, and what will happen next? The invited Valdai Club experts attempted to answer these and other questions.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who served as the UK’s Foreign and Defence Secretary (1992-1997), began his presentation by thanking the Valdai Club for the opportunity to take part in the discussion. He pointed to the Club’s “good reputation” in the UK, where the battle of Brexit is being fought. Sir Rifkind recalled that about 75% of the population took part in the 2016 vote on leaving the European Union. The results of the referendum actually split society into two camps: 17 million voted to leave, and 16 million expressed a desire to remain in the EU. Many blame the UK Parliament and government for the lengthy exit process, but, according to Sir Rifkind, something else is important. Namely, the discussion concerning Brexit is being conducted in the UK peacefully, without the participation of the police or “yellow vests”, as in France. In England, everything is happening at the level of the government and parliament, which should be the case in a genuine parliamentary democracy.
The stumbling block in disputes about Brexit is the issue of a trade agreement with the EU. Of the 650 members of parliament, only about 100 are ready to seriously consider withdrawing from the EU without any agreement, while the remaining 500 still hold the view that an agreement is necessary – because there is a transition period that will affect exports, imports and businesses throughout the UK. “If you were part of a market for almost half a century, you cannot just leave it in just one night without causing any serious changes,” Sir Rifkind said.
According to Alexander Kramarenko, Director of Development at the Russian Council on International Affairs, the reason for the failure of Theresa May’s policy was that it was not worth it to enter into negotiations with the EU without a preliminary agreement with Parliament. Because of this, the UK lost the main lever in negotiations with its partners and allowed the EU to obtain an advantageous deal for itself. For obvious reasons, the EU does not want to foster a positive example of withdrawal from the Union.
Another, more obvious reason exists for the failure of May’s agreement in Parliament, said Ivan Volodin, Minister Counsellor to the Russian Embassy in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, speaking via video link. May’s deal with the EU laid a “big mine” – the so-called backstop, which regulates the border between the UK and the European Union on the island of Ireland and, furthermore, serves as the EU's insurance plan on the status of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. According to Volodin, this is a factor which could potentially lead to instability.
Igor Kovalev, a professor at the Faculty of World Economy and World Politics at the Moscow-based Higher School of Economics, noted that Brexit, in addition to the ambiguity of European integration itself, also revealed Britain’s internal political problems. The “new Labourists,” who came to power with Tony Blair in 1997, initiated large-scale constitutional reforms, in an attempt to adjust Britain in a way that would allow them to function in a changed world. None of these reforms, however, were carried out to the end; the country failed to implement the devolution of power, parliamentary reform, or changes to the election system. Today, the political institutions of Britain are not permitted to defend national interests, Kovalev said.
Addressing the matter of the UK’s future after secession from the EU, Sir Rifkind emphasised that Brexit represents an economic rather than a foreign policy moment. He predicted that the UK’s foreign policy on global issues would best resemble the EU + 1 principle, as was the case, for example, with Iran’s nuclear deal, when the permanent members of the UN Security Council (Russia, China, France, the United States and the United Kingdom) agreed to include Germany, thus creating a P5 + 1 mechanism.
“What is happening with the EU does not affect our relations with sanctions against Russia or our position on Ukraine, where our point of view is very close to those of France and Germany,” Sir Rifkind said.
However, according to Ivan Volodin, Brexit creates a certain level of nervousness in British society, and Russia was chosen as the target by British politicians to demonstrate their determination, asserting the United Kingdom’s future role in the world.