Last night, May 23 at 6:30 pm the class attended a discussion at Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB) titled Brexit/Bremain: what is at stake for the UK and the EU, on the topic of the June 23 vote by the UK deciding on membership in the European Union. Brexit has been an interesting topic of discussion for our class as the result of the vote will have great effects regardless of outcome. This panel discussion was our first in depth look at the issue, but it won’t be our last.
The panel was introduced by Anne Weyembergh, President of the Institute of European Studies (IEE) at ULB, and was moderated by Mendel Goldstein, President of the Alumni IEE association and former member of the External Action Service of the European Commission. Jonathan Faull, Director General of the Task Force for Strategic Issues related to the UK Referendum in the European Commission presented, and the discussants on the panel were Catherine Stihler, Member of the European Parliament (S&D/UK), Rector of St Andrews University and Labour Party member, and Mario Telo, former IEE president and ULB professor.
Faull began the discussion presenting his point of view that both the EU and UK benefit from having the UK remain in the union. One point that was made is the fact that there has been no official campaigning done by the EU in order to keep the UK in. This struck me as interesting, as I felt that a lack of campaigning means a lack of understanding of the costs and benefits of EU membership. When I posed this question today in class, the answer I received was that it would backfire since the UK would see the EU as an overlord rather than a union. However, the EU campaigned and advertised for the Lisbon Treaty, the most recent treaty in effect for the EU, and so I wonder why the difference in intervention? It still seems as though an EU campaign would help counter all of the anti EU talk enough to have an effect, therefore increasing the chances that the UK will remain.
Stihler then spoke, also advocating for the UK to remain in the union. Stihler’s main point was that the vote will be determined by the voter turnout. As such, the labour party has been campaigning in Scotland encouraging citizens to vote and providing them with the economic impacts that EU membership has had on the UK. Stihler also made the point that voter registration ends June 7, so action needs to be taken now in order to have the full opinion of the UK. I think it’s interesting that Stihler is focusing on voter turnout, as it seems that there is a mostly negative EU sentiment in the UK. Because of this, the remain vote may require a large voter turnout in order to win, which may prove to be a challenge.
Telo was the final speaker who presented an interesting point of view. Telo focused on the negative aspects thus far in the campaign effort for the UK to remain. Telo spoke of the points of the campaign and explained why they were not “innovative” enough. For example one point of why the UK should remain was that Europe would delve into conflict. Telo insisted that this was not an effective point as Europe was peaceful for 25 years prior to the UK joining and has been peaceful since, so nobody would believe the point. The essence of his discussion was that in order for the campaign to be more effective, they would have to be more innovative and as the vote is one month away, this could prove to be difficult. Telo was still pro remain it seemed.
Following the discussions were questions from various audience members, including a former Belgian ambassador to the UK, a journalist from the United States representing Politico Europe and a former ULB student. The journalist asked about previous requests for the negotiation documents, which are private, between the UK and EU. Faull met the question with the statement that protocol had been seen through and the request was denied, which led to heated response by the journalist while Faull was addressing the question. The journalist ended with “That’s just how the commission works,” leaving the room tense. This was interesting to see as I felt that the journalist had a right to request the documents and being somewhat pushy is necessary in some situations. However, the documents are private as so many are in negotiations between any two large entities and they rarely tend to show their hands.
Long, a Georgia Tech student, asked about the security implications regarding Ukraine and the refugee crisis, but the questions was only vaguely answered. Faull responded that the UK being a nuclear actor is important, but that as they are not leaving NATO that the security implications would not be grand. I challenge this as the relationship between countries could very well change and the issue is simply more complex than EU and NATO being separate. Since the two organizations have so much overlap, it is hard to say that Brexit will barely affect security. How much of an effect will Brexit have on security? What will the effects be? Will there be an effect even if the UK remains due to a change in international relations changing?
Brexit is a complex issue and so this panel discussion was a good look at one side of the picture. Though each panel member represented different parties, they were all for the UK remaining. I am eager to hear the other side’s point of view and continue to watch this issue evolve. I am also interested to see the voting results on June 23 and to see the outcome of the vote, no matter what happens. I’m glad that our class could be in Europe for such a historic vote.