On June 23, 2016, Britons from all over the United Kingdom flocked to the polls to vote on leaving the European Community—what Peter Wilding, the chairman of think tank British Influence, jokingly dubbed “Brexit.” Over 33.5 million Brits cast their ballots, equal to around 72 percent of the eligible voting electorate. In the three years since two Prime Ministers have left 10 Downing Street while the EU continues to be a 28-nation bloc despite the referendum.
In 2017, Atlas Network published “Staying the Course: Brexit Uncertainties and The Fight for Free Trade,” in which we asked for some of our European partners’ input on what has become one of the most divisive issues in Europe. To understand the ongoing political controversy, we followed up with these partners for their perspectives on the current state of the Brexit debate in the U.K. and in other member nations of the European Union.
Our 2017 article revealed a wide array of differing opinions within the freedom movement. While all opinions were liberty-oriented, some of our partners supported a clean break from the EU while others deemed the idea of Brexit as a recipe for a rise in nationalism and anti-free trade and immigration policies.
To understand the ongoing political controversy, we followed up with these partners for their perspectives on the current state of the Brexit debate in the U.K. and in other member nations of the European Union.
What was controversial then has only intensified in the three years since.
Sam Bowman is a senior fellow for the Adam Smith Institute in London, an Atlas Network partner. Bowman describes the overall British feeling towards Brexit as “a mixture of fatigue and anger on both sides.”
“People are annoyed that the government hasn’t resolved the issue,” Bowman continued. “It is effectively deadlocked and has no majority for any Brexit outcome.” When asked what he would like the broader liberty movement to know about the current Brexit situation, Bowman explained, “It is a myth that Brexit is the ‘libertarian’ option. Brexit entails higher barriers to trade, more domestic regulation, a huge shift away from open immigration to a restrictive state-managed system, and potentially lots of private industry being nationalized.”
Karin Svanborg-Sjövall, CEO of Atlas Network partner Timbro in Sweden, discussed how support for the EU has soared in Sweden as a result of Brexit. “The domestic process to achieve Brexit has not been very inspiring. For the first time, we saw an election to the European Parliament in May where not a single party advocated for Swexit.” Svanborg-Sjövall pointed to the Brexit debate as essentially a battle between “nationalism and globalism—elites and citizens,” echoing Bowman’s fears of higher barriers to trade and more restrictive immigration.
Eamonn Butler, director of the Adam Smith Institute, was featured in Atlas Network’s 2017 article and explained why he thought “Leave” was the U.K.’s best option. In 2019, he says his opinion has only deepened. “After much prevarication and delay, I am now even more determined than ever that we should leave on October 31,” he explained. “I think there would be dire domestic political effects if we do not; Conservative voters leaving for the Brexit Party in droves, a split center-right electorate, and the potential election of an anti-democratic Labour Party.”
When asked why the Brexit issue has become so polarizing, Butler replied, “It isn’t. It is Britain’s EU membership that is polarizing. It has been a polarization that has simmered under the surface for three decades, and eventually burst out.”
Mark Littlewood, director-general of the Institute for Economic Affairs, shared Butler’s sentiment. “Like most people in this debate, on both sides, my views have probably hardened,” Littlewood commented. “I believe there were legitimate reasons for classical liberals to back the ‘Remain’side in 2016. However, in the intervening three years, I have become a more strident leader.” Littlewood pointed to pessimistic and deleterious predictions from the Remain side that have failed to materialize, such as a rise in nationalism, protectionism, and a shift away from free trade, to explain his hardened Leave stance.
Additionally, Littlewood worries about setting a dangerous precedent by refusing to honor the results of a democratic referendum. “We need to actually carry out the result,” he concluded. “A failure to do so would bring democracy itself into question in the U.K. My hope is that Brexit provides a wake-up call to Brussels. There is a window of opportunity now to change course. We should use it to mobilize.”
In April, EU leaders agreed to extend the Brexit deadline to October 31, 2019. In response, the Brexit Party, founded in January by Nigel Farage, dominated the British European Parliament elections. Currently, the party has over 115,000 registered supporters throughout the U.K., while 29 Brexit partiers have made Brussels their temporary new home since being elected to European Parliament. This highlights the fact that the Brexit issue is far from resolved and remains just as contentious of an issue as it was on the day of the referendum.
While there is some healthy disagreement within the freedom movement when it comes to Brexit, Atlas Network and all of our partners agree: freer trade is good for everybody. We are proud of the work that our partners are doing in the name of free trade and pro-market reforms on both sides of the Brexit debate and look forward to working towards a freer, more prosperous world.