Panel Discusses Causes and Implications of Brexit


Drew Kaplan '20, Editor in Chief

Associate Professor of Political Science Ed Webb claimed “the print media in Britain have been selling all sorts of fake news about the European Union for decades” during a panel discussion on Brexit, in which he spoke alongside Mark Duckenfield, a professor within the Department of National Security and Strategy at the U.S. Army War College, and Oya Dursun-Özkanca, professor of political science at Elizabethtown College.

Duckenfield opened the discussion with an explanation of the British political situation prior to the Brexit referendum in 2016. He noted that, in the 2014 European Parliament elections and 2015 general election, parties in favor of leaving the European Union, namely the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), received increasing shares of the vote. These voters would otherwise have likely voted for the Conservative Party, which prompted the Conservative Party to promise a referendum on leaving the European Union, in an attempt to sway UKIP voters back, according to Duckenfield. Duckenfield noted that the decision for the referendum was related to the internal politics of the Conservative Party, namely through their connections to the upper classes of British society, the uppermost level of which Duckenfield compared to members of “Slytherin House” of Harry Potter.

Dursun-Özkanca noted that the referendum has a 72 percent turnout, with 52 percent voting to leave. However, the majority of those voting to leave were concentrated in England and Wales, with Scotland and Northern Ireland voting overall to remain.

Duckenfield noted that, while the options on the referendum were either to leave the EU or remain, what constituted ‘leave’ was ill-defined, with several competing notions of what would change if the United Kingdom were to leave the EU, and which, if any, EU initiatives, programs, and treaties to which the UK would remain party.

Following the referendum, the general election held in 2017 cost the Conservative Party their majority, leading them to form a coalition government with the Northern Irish ‘Democratic Unionist Party.’ However, the coalition government, which has seen several members of the Conservative Party expelled from the party or defect, and stretched over three Prime Ministers, has not yet happened, leading to a degree of political exhaustion, according to Webb.

“The population of the United Kingdom is exhausted. They want something, anything,” Webb said, noting that while “people care passionately about this issue,” the drawn-out nature of the process has led citizens to disengage. Webb noted that the United Kingdom had never fully integrated itself into the European Union, and while entered into close relations with the rest of Europe under the leadership of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, this was premised on business grounds, with much of the British political system having remained fractured on the proper location of Britain within Europe. “This vigorous internal debate could be helpful,” Webb stated. However, he noted that recent political discourse around Brexit has tended towards populism. “Populism is different from democracy,” and this move is, according to Webb, “dangerous stuff.” Webb was especially critical of the use of a referendum in deciding the course of Brexit for two reasons. The first is that referendums have not traditionally been part of the British political system, and the second because popular media has exploited a lack of understanding about the European Union’s organizational structure to create catchy headlines to sell papers. “The print media in Britain have been selling all sorts of fake news about the European Union for decades,” while describing Brexit as the “worst possible question to put to the people” as “across the board, the EU is hard to explain. […] Ordinary citizens don’t really understand it,” he said. These violations of norms governing British political discourse have been exacerbated by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Webb observed. Webb described Johnson as an unprincipled opportunist well known for his anti-EU sentiment, noting “the Prime Minister [Johnson] wants something different every ten minutes.” Webb also noted Johnson’s personal violations of British political custom, namely that of Parliamentary sovereignty, describing Johnson’s sentiment as “the Constitution doesn’t matter too much, I’m Prime Minister.”

Reactions to the discussion were positive. Nuhan Abid ’22 thought “it was exciting to hear a lot of different academic thoughts on Brexit. I feel like we don’t hear enough about other major global affairs, and something as big as Brexit needs to be discussed more often because it […] has implications for the entire world.”

Sara O’Herron ’22 added that she enjoyed hearing about Brexit from both Americans, and those who will be affected by it directly. “I really enjoyed this talk because it had very different points of view talking about very different things. This was a good place to learn more about [Brexit].”

“Brexit: Where it Stands, What it Means” took place on Wednesday, October 2 at 7:00 p.m. in ATS.