Can remain voters influence the Brexit deal?

Carla Cabrera Cuadrado
October 19, 2019

On 23 June 2016, the Brexit referendum took place with 48% of UK voters choosing to remain and 52% voting to leave the EU. This was the unexpected result of David Cameron’s reelection strategy, which rested on a false certainty that the Brexit referendum would be as successful as the Scottish independence referendum two years ago.

After three years of hard negotiations, three rejected withdrawal agreements, three UK Prime Ministers, and an extended deadline, on Thursday, Boris Johnson agreed with the EU on a Brexit deal. However, a ratification from the UK Parliament is still needed and the chances that it will get approved this Saturday are slim. The question is, why?

When the Brexit referendum resulted in a majority to leave the EU, a large number of remain voters and international parties were shocked, including the erstwhile British Prime Minister. The EU even suggested that the UK reconsider its decision and think through the consequences of leaving, particularly in light of public opinion.

The remain camp remained confused and was too unorganized to have any power in the conversation at that point. From the moment the British government decided to move forward with withdrawal, remain voters have been increasingly vocal in their objections within Parliament. However, their presence in the Brexit negotiations has had the opposite intended effect.

One of the big problems is remain voters’ leadership, or lack thereof. Although Jeremy Corbyn represents a higher percentage of anti-Brexit voters as the Labour Party head, significant portions of the remain constituency are also represented by Jo Swinson of the Liberal Democrats, Ian Blackford of the Scottish National Party, Caroline Lucas of the Greens, and Anna Soubry representing the Independents.

As Ira William Zartman mentions in his leadership analysis of international negotiations, an “absence of structure” leads parties to take their own stance as “leaders” or “defenders” during negotiations, resulting in conditions of greater difficulty for forming a coalition. Similarly, the leadership of remain voters is scattered and unclear, while the pro-Brexit leadership is consolidated under the Prime Minister and head of the Conservative Party – first Theresa May, and now Boris Johnson.

If anti-Brexit constituents were to have a clear leader from the beginning, they may have played a more important role in the EU negotiations instead of being limited to a domestic constituency that UK Brexit negotiators must deal with only at home.

Interestingly, here is where Robert Putnam’s “two-level game” negotiation applies. Although the Brexit negotiations are presented as an international negotiation between the UK and the EU, it is actually a “two-level game” negotiation. On one hand, we have the UK and the EU discussing a deal at the international level. On the other hand, we have the internal negotiations that the UK has to enter into within Parliament before approving any deal. Therefore, a final agreement will be reached when a tentative agreement proposed in the first negotiation (UK – EU) is ratified by the players of the second negotiation (domestic constituents). In this case, the constituents would define a “win-set” of all possible UK-EU agreements that would be accepted and, consequently, approved by the UK Parliament .

Since Theresa May began withdrawal negotiations in 2017, the difficulties of reaching an agreement haven’t been with the UK-EU talks, but with domestic negotiations between the leave and remain blocs within Parliament. The problem is that the Zone of Possible Agreement (ZOPA)—that is, “the common ground between two disputing parties”—perceived by the EU and the UK has not yet aligned with the win-set of the domestic population. That is why no agreement has been ratified by the UK government in the last three years.

On Thursday, Boris Johnson and the EU agreed to a Brexit deal that will be presented to the UK Parliament tomorrow. Few are the chances to get it approved, unless domestic parties are willing to make concessions this time.

The new deal has made important modifications on a hard line issue: the Northern Irish border. Whereas Theresa May suggested an EU backstop at the border of Northern Ireland (UK) and the Republic of Ireland (EU), Johnson has proposed to move that backstop to the Irish Sea as a customs check. Northern Ireland would be a part of the UK's customs territory, but will remain privy to the EU's rules and procedures on tariffs due to its location. As a diplomatic source explained, “Northern Ireland would de jure be in the UK’s customs territory but de facto in the European Union's".

No concessions have yet been made by domestic parties within the UK Parliament, forcing the UK to adopt a hard strategy in the UK-EU negotiations. Hard strategies in negotiations are usually taken by the party with higher bargaining power. However, the UK has adopted a distributive and hard bargaining style since it finds itself in the weaker position. In addition, the pressure from domestic constituencies on issues like immigration, free trade, and the Irish border are weakening the UK’s Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA).

Regardless of these issues, an agreement has been reached thanks to European concessions and the promise of future trade agreements. However, domestic constraints are putting the UK in a very difficult position to extract any real Brexit agreement before the next deadline, on 31 October. Remain voters, therefore, will make it impossible to close a deal unless they consider the consequences of leaving the EU with a no-deal Brexit and vote in favor of the new deal this Saturday.

Whereas the EU is also constrained in its ability to help with a smooth transition if they want to set an example of what it means for a country to withdraw, the importance of its relationship with the UK has resulted in a few concessions and the promise of free trade agreements. Nevertheless, the EU still maintains a stronger position and has accepted a deal that implies mutual benefits without losing face.

The UK has been the first and only nation to invoke Article 50, the withdrawal clause of the EU Treaty. If the UK is able to main EU benefits after withdrawal and ride out a smooth transition – which, albeit, hasn’t been the case so far – other EU nations may see this as an example for potential future withdrawal. Therefore, sovereignty implications for the EU, the demands of British constituencies, and the unwillingness of both remain and leave MPs to yield are all factors inhibiting the possibility of a favorable ratified Brexit agreement.

If the remain voters unify their forces as one single anti-Brexit opposition to the Conservative Party and concentrate their efforts on negotiating the actual Brexit agreement between the UK and the EU, a much more favorable Brexit deal could be reached. Using an integrative bargaining strategy would help the UK find a creative win-win solution, as the remain party’s goals and the EU’s goals are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

In conclusion, 31 October could bring many possible solutions: a mostly utopian advantageous Brexit agreement negotiated mainly by the remain voters and the EU; another extension of the deadline, a new Parliamentary election, and possibly a second Brexit referendum; or a poor last-minute deal that nobody is hoping for.

Carla Cabrera Cuadrado is a current Spanish Fulbright graduate student of Intercultural and International Communication at American University. She is a Board member and Communications Director of SIETAR Europa and President of the SIS Graduate Student Council.