A report by Cumberland Lodge scholars on a lecture by retired British diplomat, Sir Stephen Wall, as part of the Scholars Induction Weekend at Cumberland Lodge on 9-11 September 2016

Published Date: 
Monday, 12 September 2016
Authorship: 
Liisa Tuhkanen, Nick Thompson and Rebecca Love

On the 23rd of June 2016, 51.8 percent of voters in Britain’s referendum on the European Union membership cast their ballot for ‘Brexit’, sending shockwaves through British society and the global economy. Nearly three months on, there is still little clarity on what this will mean for Britain or for Europe.

Will Brexit take place? What form will it take? Where is Britain heading? These were some of the questions discussed at the Cumberland Lodge lecture ’The UK and Europe’, led by Sir Stephen Wall, a former diplomat and Chairman of the Cumberland Lodge Trustees.  [The recording of this talk can be found at the bottom of the page].

Under the sombre gaze of the many eminent historical figures adorning the walls of the Cumberland Lodge drawing room, the scene was suitably set for an illuminating discussion of arguably the most important and contentious topic in UK politics today. Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the talk was the way in which the passion and knowledge of the speaker managed to breathe fresh life into a topic which has rarely left the minds (and lips) of us all over the past few months. Somewhat surprisingly, this evocative and highly divisive issue was discussed in a measured and objective manner (possibly due to the fact that an impromptu straw poll suggested that all those in attendance were aligned in their perspectives on the matter). 

The discussion began with a chronological review of Britain’s long and tumultuous history with Brussels; the vote followed 43 years of a love-hate relationship, defined by the alternation of enthusiasm and doubts on the British side. Common themes throughout the talk related to the importance of the single market and tariff-free trade, and ever-increasing concerns regarding the potential loss of power at the national level. With a strong foundation regarding the history of the UK’s relationship with the EU efficiently laid down by the speaker, the latter part of the talk left only the questions regarding what comes next for the UK to be addressed. 

The vote to leave comes with no plan of action or agreed destination. While a Norwegian model would offer the benefits of EU membership and access to the single market, it would not include limitations on the free movement of people - a key driver for those in favour of Brexit.  Such a model would also require the UK to continue contributing to the EU budget. 

Other options discussed included a ‘Two Europes’ model, with a core of European countries continuing with further integration, and others, such as Britain, paying for their access to the single market and having some restrictions on the freedom of movement. While it is unclear if this is even a possibility, there have been indications of calls for parallel referendums in other EU countries such as the Netherlands, France, Poland and Hungary. 

With post-referendum fears on the rise in the weeks following the UK’s decision to leave, some (arguably those who took the side of the leave campaign) have taken solace in the ‘relative’ stability of the UK in the wake of the vote.

However, the impact of the decision is likely to hit hardest in the medium to long term, and thus the UK’s position looks set to remain uncertain for the foreseeable future.

While triggering article 50 will start a two year process of exit negotiations with the EU, this is only the first step. Negotiations will need to take place with Northern Ireland, the Commonwealth and NATO. Complete ambiguity and uncertainty concerning the political, constitutional and economic consequences remain. What could mutually be agreed upon by those present in the room is the fact that the worst is yet to come and the consequences of this decision will persist for decades.