The four challenges of Brexit: why we need wonks

Brexit will involve four particular challenges of considerable complexity and difficulty. Each will keep wonks and academics very busy indeed.

It is a very depressing day for wonks, academics and anyone else who might claim to be one of the “experts” that Michael Gove so derides. As several commentators on Wonkhe and in the press have noted, the vote for Brexit is a very deliberate rejection of expertise, evidence and the people who claim to possess such qualities. Data and ‘reality’ appear to count for very little.

But now is not the time for wonks to give up. The scale of the task before Whitehall and UK civil society is absolutely immense. There is an unending number of small and unthought-of issues that were previously reliant on our relationship with the European market, European law and cross-European relationships. It is phenomenally complicated. Higher education is only one of a number of sectors where expertise will be desperately needed. It cannot be emphasised enough: this will take years to fix, well beyond the two years after the now infamous Article 50 is triggered.

For once, higher education might be grateful that it is overseen by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, rather than the Department for Education. BIS will play a critical role in negotiating the terms of our divorce settlement with the EU, and subsequently our future relationship settlement with the EU and the rest of the world. The workload will be immense, but at least higher education should get some consideration in how the department approaches the task.

According to Professor Michael Dougan of the University of Liverpool, a specialist in EU law, Brexit will involve four particular challenges. Each will keep wonks, lawyers, academics, lobbyists and economists very busy indeed.

1 – Internal UK law and policy

According to Professor Dougan, “There will have to be a comprehensive review of the UK legal system because for 40 years UK law has evolved in combination with, under the influence of, EU law and the two are virtually impossible to disentangle. This will be an enormous technical undertaking”. There are an estimated 80,000 pages of EU agreements to be repealed, amended, or retained. Parliament will simply not be able to legislate for every issue that needs to be considered, and on those issues that is does, it is not difficult to anticipate difficulties and division. The very reason leading Conservative Brexiters wanted to leave the EU was to revoke and reverse several controversial aspects of EU law they felt were ‘imposed’ by Brussels, including issues related to employment rights and environmental regulations that Labour campaigned about.

Other legal decisions will have to be delegated to the government in order to ease the burden on Parliament. Civil servants and ministers will be making some critical decisions on a range of issues related to British law, in quite a similar way to the notorious ‘Eurocrats’ so despised by the Leave campaign.

2 – UK constitutional law

Aside from the additional possible complexities caused by a second Scottish referendum, there will also need to be some considered thinking about the status of Northern Ireland. When civil servants and politicians in these nations are involved in negotiating the main issues, who will they be representing: the UK government or their devolved administrations? If you thought devolution was complicated enough already, prepare for even more caveated and region-specific wonkery.

3 – The divorce settlement

This is the two year process that will begin when Parliament legislate to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. The EU’s joint statement on this, as well comments by senior EU figures, suggests that the Commission and the Council will want to get started on this as soon as possible, whereas David Cameron has announced that it will only begin when a new prime minister is known. Boris Johnson has also called for patience. There is a wider context of French and German elections next year; neither electorate is expected to be in favour of giving favourable terms to the UK. Once Article 50 is triggered, the balance of power falls the other 27 EU states – they have to unanimously agree the deal that is presented to Britain. What if they present a settlement that even a Brexit government cannot agree to?

The main issue – as noted on our live blog this morning – is the future of the 3 million EU citizens living in the UK, and the 2 million UK citizens living in the EU. This includes many students and recent graduates, as well as higher education staff. Will they require visas? Will there be a moratorium on new entries, or a ‘phasing out’ of free movement? We simply do not know. Note that these negotiations will not be directly about the UK’s ongoing relationship with the single market. That comes after.

4 – The UK’s future settlement with the EU and elsewhere

Only once Britain’s divorce is agreed can negotiations formerly begin on whether the UK continues in the single market, or a customs union, or a new bilateral free-trade agreement, or anything else. Furthermore, all of the UK’s current trade agreements with non-EU countries, including Canada, South Korea and (in the near future) the USA, will be null and void and need to be renegotiated. This could take the best part of a decade and is a massive amount of work. Since Switzerland signed its first agreement with the EEC in the 1970s, it has negotiated well over 100 separate bilateral deals with the EU and is still negotiating more. It is a never-ending process.

Professor Dougan perhaps describes the challenge best:

“The single market is by far and away, and we have no even close competitor, the most advanced trade agreement on the planet. It goes much further, much deeper, than any other form of international trade agreement.

“The reason it does so is because it sets out to tackle “the holy grail” of international trade. No one really cares about tariffs, tariffs are easy. You either have taxes or you abolish them, that is easy. The “holy grail” of international trade is how you deal with regulatory barriers.”
Regulation is the bread and butter of wonkery and it will need to be rethought in every single business and public service sector in the UK, including higher education.”

So it’s time for wonks to saddle up and get to work. If you’re up for the challenge, send your CVs to BIS and the Foreign Office now – it’s all hands on deck of the good-ship HMS Brexit, making its way through very stormy waters.

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