Firing Line Debate on Brexit: James Kirchick and Dr. Nile Gardiner

On Tuesday, October 3rd, the Buckley Program hosted a Firing Line Debate on Brexit with James Kirchick and Dr. Nile Gardiner. James Kirchick, of the Brookings Institution, is the author of The End of Europe. Dr. Nile Gardiner, of the Heritage Foundation, is a former aid to Lady Thatcher. The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity. 

By: Kevin Olteanu

Kevin: Thank you so much for being here. I have a couple of questions on Brexit. The first question is: was Brexit a good idea in your opinion and why?

James Kirchick: No. I don’t think it was a good idea. I think Britain’s largest trading partner is with the E.U., its closest allies are with the E.U., and leaving the institution abruptly at this point—the costs outweigh any benefit. And in particular at a time when I think the West needs to stand united against rising authoritarian powers, in particular Russia. The last thing we need is fragmentation like this.

Dr. Nile Gardiner: I disagree. I think Brexit is tremendous news for Great Britain. I think it’s good for America as well. You are going to see a resurgent Britain on the world stage, a truly global Britain I think as ‘Brexiters’ like to put it, and it’s going to be a forward looking Britain that is going to be a tremendous ally for the United States and also a tremendous ally for European countries as well. An ally that will stand up to the bullying menace of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. So this is a Great Britain that will be fully engaged on the world stage. But a sovereign, independent nation, which I think is in the best interest of the British people.

Kevin: Do you think that public opinion within the U.K. has shifted from the time of the vote to the present? And if so, why?

James Kirchick: I don’t think it has significantly. I think actually many people in my side of the debate were expecting it to move more—that there would be a sort of… regretful Brexit voters. But we really haven’t seen that much of it. I actually think though that if, when the final deal is hammered out eventually between the E.U. and the U.K., if that deal is worse than what Britain currently has as a member of the E.U., then I think you actually could see public opinion shift.

Dr. Nile Gardiner: I think that James is right in pointing out that we haven’t seen any shift in opinion against Brexit, and I think support for Brexit has remained very solid. You have seen, I think, a significant percentage of ‘Remainers’ actually accepting Brexit. There are, though, I would say about a quarter of the British population die-hard opponents of Brexit—they are still opposed to Brexit and that won’t change. And of course the negotiations with the European Union are very complex. They will take some time, certainly at least two years. And I would expect actually support for Brexit to remain actually very solid during this negotiation period. I don’t think you are going to see a shift on that.

Kevin: At this point do you think that the Brexit could fail to go through, or is it a done deal?

James Kirchick: Like I said if the deal that is hammered out is worse… I think there are many reasons why it could be worse than what the Brits already have. Staying in the single market is going to be difficult to do without maintaining freedom of movement and that this is really the major issue that hasn’t been resolved. And so I see serious difficulties around that, around the Northern Ireland border, lots of very difficult problems that I think a lot of the Brexit supporters weren’t really thinking about because they weren’t expecting to win. And I think that if these are not resolved to the satisfaction of the British public and the British public realizes that the deal that they’re going to get—they’re not going to be able to trade freely with their biggest trading partners in Europe for instance, they’re not going to have the same ability to travel and work in the E.U. 27—I think you could potentially see a movement for a second referendum, which might not pass.

Dr. Nile Gardiner: Brexit is a done deal. It’s happening now. It’s reality, and I don’t think that any major British politician today seriously would believe that Brexit can be reversed. And even within the Labour Party, which has traditionally been very pro-EU but now is led by somewhat euro-skeptic figure Jeremy Corbyn, Labour has accepted the Brexit vote, not least because a big chuck of their own supporters, around 1/3 or so of Labour voters backed Brexit. Many of those are marginal constituencies, and I don’t think it is in the interest of the Labour party to start talking about a second referendum, and I don’t think that is a reality at all.

Kevin: What new U.K.-E.U. relationship should be negotiated?

Dr. Nile Gardiner: Well I think that, you know, it is in the interest of both sides to negotiate a good free-trading arrangement that advances prosperity on both sides here. And it is not in the interest, for example, of Germany or France, big European Union players, to act tough in the negotiations because both of those countries have a big economic stake in Great Britain. There is a great deal of British investment throughout Europe. So I think, you know, a good, productive free trade deal would be a win-win for both sides, and I do hope that on the European Union side that officials are pragmatic and that they act really in the interest of the whole of Europe, and it’s in Europe’s interest, I think, to have a good deal with Britain and to be on cordial terms with the British government as well.

James Kirchick: This is a difficult question. I think it is going to be very difficult, like I said, for there to be a free trade agreement without there being freedom of movement. Freedom of movement was really the reason why most people I think people voted for Brexit. It was the immigration issue. And I think actually Britain is laboring under an illusion if they think that they’re going to get the best of both worlds—that they are going to get tariff free trade, membership in the customs union, without freedom of movement—because while it is true that France and Germany certainly have a lot of investment in Britain and Britain has a lot of investment in them, they also have a lot at stake in maintaining the European Union. And if members can leave and maintain the same benefits without any of the downsides or costs, if you will, then the message that that could send could break apart the E.U. And France and Germany ultimately are not going to do anything that they would fear might lead to the breakup of the European Union.

Moderator: What do you think will be the biggest challenge that the U.K. will face when Brexit, or if Brexit, does go through?

Dr. Nile Gardiner: I would present it more as opportunities rather than challenges. And I think that Britain has the opportunity, once again, to be a great free trading nation, which it hasn’t been able to be in the last four decades. I think Britain can be more assertive on the world stage actually, free from the shackles of the common foreign defense policy of the European Union. And I think you will see Britain be more assertive, more aggressive actually, towards the Russians in particular. You are going to see a stronger, special relationship with the United States. I think you are going to see greater ties between Great Britain and a whole host of major countries across the world from India through to Canada and Australia, the old Commonwealth nations. And I think you are going to see revitalization, actually, of British leadership on the world stage—and that, I think, is something to look forward to.

James Kirchick: The costs I think are going to be economic. I think a lot of jobs will be lost. Supply chains will have to be rerouted. You’re already seeing companies relocating their European base of operations from London to Berlin and Paris. Because if Britain is not going to be in the EU, then what point does it have…? What is the point in having your European headquarters in a country that is not in the E.U.? So I think that there will be economic costs. We haven’t seen them yet, obviously, because Britain hasn’t left the E.U. But once it does, and I don’t think it will be on terms that are favorable to the U.K., I do think that there will be an economic cost.

Kevin: For my last question, do you think that other countries within the EU should follow the U.K.’s example?

Dr. Nile Gardiner: Well that is an extremely good question—a very important question—and I think that Brexit was a decision by the British people for the British people. I think it is up to other European countries to find their own path. I do believe that Brexit will be a great success, and I do think that it will act as an example, perhaps, for some others to follow in Europe. But the purpose of Brexit is not to break up the European Union. At the end of the day, each European country must decide its own destiny—shape its own future. Some may eventually leave the European Union. Others will want to stay. Others will want to craft a sort of European Union super state, and we are seeing a lot of that talk now actually in the European Commission—also in Paris, Brussels, and Berlin. But the British people have decided their own path, and its up to others whether they want to follow that or stay with the status quo.

James Kirchick: The past 75 years in Europe have been its most peaceful and prosperous. And while I don’t think the E.U. is the reason for that, I don’t think it’s coincidental that this period of unprecedented peace and prosperity has transpired with greater European integration. So I think the E.U. is a very important project, both for Europeans and for the United States. And I think that it is in the interests of all people who love freedom and democracy that it remains intact.

Kevin: Thank you so much for your time—I really appreciate it!

Kevin Olteanu is a junior in Ezra Stiles College.