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International law expert William Burke-White discusses the consequences of Brexit

June 24, 2016

Professor William Burke-White, an expert on international law, explains that the Brexit could severely undermine the European Union.
Professor William Burke-White, an expert on international law, explains that the Brexit could severely undermine the European Union.
Penn Law spoke with Professor William Burke-White about Brexit and its global implications.

After Britain voted to leave to leave the European Union, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron announced he would step down, and financial markets and the pound fell sharply. Penn Law spoke with Professor William Burke-White about the Brexit and its global implications.

Burke-White is Richard Perry Professor and Inaugural Director of the Perry World House as well as a Professor of Law. He is an expert on international law and global governance and served in the Obama Administration from 2009–2011 on Secretary Clinton’s Policy Planning Staff.

Penn Law: What is your initial reaction to the Brexit?

William Burke-White: I fear this will go down as one of the darker days for both the United Kingdom and the international order that has been created since the end of World War II. I am both shocked and sad. For the United Kingdom, a country that for centuries truly led the world, today marks the end of an era of global leadership and economic prosperity. While change will be gradual, it is nearly certain that the British pound will continue to decline, and London will likely recede as a hub of global finance, with the baton of European economic power passing to Berlin or even Amsterdam.

Perhaps even more troubling is that nationalist populism has triumphed over economic and political reality. People from across Europe whose lives have become intertwined with the United Kingdom will find themselves displaced.

PL: Legally, what happens next?

WBW: The legal picture is far less clear. First, it is not clear that the referendum is legally binding. Prime Minister Cameron called for it as part of a politically expedient campaign promise, but the referendum itself does not cause the U.K. to leave the EU. Some British legal experts have suggested that a vote of the U.K. parliament may also be necessary. If that proves to be the case, parliament could, in theory, defy the will of the British people and stay in the EU. But assuming the exit continues, Cameron or his successor must formally invoke a little-known clause in the treaties establishing the EU that allows for withdrawal.

No one ever actually thought that provision would be triggered, so the exact processes that would follow are uncertain. The treaty provides for a maximum of two years to negotiate a British exit. During that time, the U.K. and the EU would need to work out a myriad of challenges: a new trade relationship, regulations for EU citizens who are living and working the U.K., financial controls, judicial review mechanisms, etc. It is certain to be a complicated and difficult negotiation, with limited good will on either side.

PL: How will this impact the EU project?

WBW: Perhaps the most remarkable political institution created in the past fifty years, the EU offers Europe peace, stability, and relative economic prosperity. Not to say that the EU didn’t have its problems, but it has brought peace and opportunity to a continent previously torn by war and strife for nearly half a century. I fear the Brexit vote will in many ways cripple the EU. The EU’s credibility, economic power, and military might will be significantly curtailed. With the British exit, other members of the EU may think about either leaving or at least renegotiating the terms of the agreement. For the next two years at least, the EU will be wrapped up in an inward looking negotiation, neglecting the big challenges facing the international community. In a world of potential threats from Russia, China, the Middle East, and elsewhere, the EU’s ability to shape the global landscape will be significantly limited.

PL: How will this impact Britain’s standing, diplomatically, economically?

WBW: In short, this is the end of Britain as a major international player, diplomatically and economically. While pro-exit voters may wish a throwback to an era of British global power, that era is over. As a member of the EU, Britain was able to help steer the world’s largest economic block. Alone, Britain’s economy is far smaller (ranked fifth in the world). As part of the EU, Britain was able to work with Germany, France, and other NATO partners to help ensure global stability. Alone, Britain lacks the ability to project force significantly beyond its own borders. As part of the EU, Britain was able to use the attractiveness of EU membership, the strength of the British pound, and a great deal of soft power to steer diplomatic agendas. Alone, Britain will be but one of many middle powers without real global diplomatic heft.

It is also likely that Scotland will seek another referendum for independence from the U.K., perhaps joining the EU and thereby further weaken Britain’s international position.

PL: What does this mean for the broader international economic system?

WBW: I think we will see real stagnation of the international economic system in the years ahead. To take one example, the U.S. and the EU were in the early stages of negotiating a free trade agreement, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Those efforts are effectively dead. It will be impossible to negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU when the EU and the U.K. are uncertain of their own economic relationship. First, the EU and the U.K. will need to establish new tariffs themselves before any new efforts can be started on global trade and investment. And such a deal — even just between the EU and the U.K. — may be unreachable as both sides demand unrealistic terms and potential payouts from the U.K. to compensate for the loses caused by British exit.

PL: What does this mean for the broader global political system?

WBW: I fear there will be smiles or even laughter in Moscow and Beijing today. Together the U.S. and the EU offered a global economic and political alliance that ensured stability and put a check on rising powers who might seek to alter the international system as a whole. With the EU and the U.K. wrapped up in internal negotiation and conflict over the next several years, that global and economic alliance looks far less effective.

PL: At a more human level, what are the consequences of Brexit, particularly as it relates to debates around immigration, migration, and refugee flows?

WBW: This vote was driven in part by a growing nationalism and even xenophobia. Foreigners living in the U.K. may ultimately need to leave the country, though that remains to be seen based on the negotiation process between the U.K. and the EU. Britons may also find it impossible to work in the rest of Europe, but either way, one of the world’s most global cities, London, will not be the same.