The United Kingdom and European Union after the Brexit: An Interview with Dr Christopher Rees

by Emrah Atar


Emrah Atar: The United Kingdom was a member of the European Union from 1973. During this time, there were many important events, and the breakup of the European Union came to pass. Would you like to inform us first about the European Union adventure of the United Kingdom?

Chris Rees: Well, it has certainly has been a journey if not an adventure! Arguably, the UK’s relationship with the EU has always been fractious. As you say, the UK joined the Common Market (which would eventually morph into the European Union) in 1973. My earliest recollection of the subject is of my parents leaving the house in 1975 to cast their votes about whether the UK should remain in the Common Market.  I was too young to vote in that referendum; hence, in some ways, people of my generation have lived through discussions and debates about the UK’s relationship with Europe for their entire lives.

Since 1973, EU-related issues have been an ever-present and controversial feature of UK politics. These issues have caused major difficulties especially for Conservative Prime Ministers including Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, David Cameron, and Theresa May. (And with one eye on history, we can say with a degree of confidence that Boris Johnson is not yet in the clear!)

Dr Chris Rees is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Manchester, UK. He specialises in Organisational Change.

We sought his views on the subject of Brexit from a change management rather than from a primarily economic perspective.

Emrah Atar: What are some of the issues about Brexit which you can highlight from a change management perspective?

Chris Rees: One of the themes to emerge from change management literature is the central role of leaders in change management processes; approaches to organisational change ranging from Weisbord’s six box model to the McKinsey 7S model consistently recognise that leaders have to bring people with them in order to manage change successfully. And here we hit two major and related issues in relation to the UK’s decision to leave the EU. First, over a relatively lengthy period of time, the UK’s electorate had become increasingly disconnected from their political leaders leading to a lack of trust in the political class. In essence, when leading politicians were saying that remaining in the EU was a good thing, large sections of the population questioned whether this was true because, rightly or wrongly, they simply did not trust the politicians who were arguing this case. Hence, there is a reasoned argument to be made for saying that, if the main political parties in the UK had recommended voting for Brexit, the country may well have voted to Remain.  

Second, the EU debate provided a means for disenfranchised groups of voters to voice their discontent in a quiet but highly consequential way.  Taking a resistance to change approach, some voters saw the referendum as an opportunity to express their dissatisfaction and anger about a whole range of issues including housing, student fees, pensions, taxation, zero-hours contracts, immigration, healthcare, and the transport infrastructure. Interestingly, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) which, as its name suggests, campaigned vigorously for the UK to leave the EU, attracted some voters who knew very little about the workings of the EU but saw UKIP as a way of challenging the status quo of UK politics. So, yes, in the referendum, a proportion of the voters (including some UKIP voters) were very clear about their reasons for voting for Brexit based on their knowledge and experience of European matters; however there were others who used the referendum to voice their discontent about more local issues which were adversely affecting their lives – and for which they held responsible the politicians, who were telling them to vote Remain.

Ultimately, the voters went against the advice and recommendations of the established political parties, and this can be summarised as a failure of leadership. The scale of the disconnect between the politicians and voters is exemplified by the fact that leading politicians were surprised to the point of shock by the outcome of the referendum; even after voting booths had closed on the day of the referendum many of them (including some politicians in favour of Brexit) were so unaware of the feelings of large sections of the UK population that they did not even contemplate the possibility of a Leave majority (with 52% voting for Brexit and 48% voting to Remain).

Emrah Atar: It all started in 2017. The Referendum was held, and a long process put the United Kingdom on hold. We all know that the crisis caused by the Brexit fight has led to the resignation of two prime ministers, the suspension of Parliament, the division of society and the impasse in relations with the EU. After emerging strongly out of the general election, the Prime Minister kept his promise to the government, and on 31 January 2020, the United Kingdom officially divorced from the EU. Do you want to make a general assessment of this process?

Chris Rees: Well, I agree with your assessment that this was a long process from the day of the referendum to exiting the EU. In order to explain this, we have to look at a number of factors.  For example, immediately after the referendum, David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister, and Theresa May took on this key role. Looking back, it is reasonable to question why the Conservative party considered her to be an appropriate person to lead Brexit negotiations given that, prior to the referendum she was in favour of the UK remaining in the EU. In any change process, the credibility of those leading the change is a critical success factor even in cases where the intended outcome of the change may appear to be positive.

The task of leading the UK out of the EU was always going to be highly challenging. For example, there was a strong faction within Theresa May’s Conservative Party which did not want to leave the EU and were voting with the main opposition party to thwart her Brexit strategies; and there was another faction within her own party which was keen to leave the EU and questioned both her Brexit credentials and strategies. In attempting to strengthen her position, she made an error of judgement in calling a general election. Instead of strengthening her position, the election resulted in her losing her majority, the weakening of her authority, and ultimately her resignation. In reviewing the situation since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, it is clear that the manner in which the withdrawal process is now being handled is entirely different to the May era, thus reinforcing some of the points I have already made. Boris Johnson had campaigned for Brexit, and this gave him some credibility in the Brexit process. Further, after then calling a general election and obtaining a large majority in Parliament, he was in an altogether stronger position than his predecessor. As a result, he was able to carry legislation through the UK parliament and to adopt a far more robust stance with the EU negotiators.

Emrah Atar: Brexit was initially meant to happen on 29 March 2019, but the deadline was delayed twice after MPs rejected the deal negotiated by Mrs Theresa May who was the prime minister at the time. Why do you think that Brexit took so long?

Chris Rees: There are so many possible explanations as to why Brexit took so long, some of which I have alluded to in my previous answer. Possibly, delays were attributable to an underlying lack of support for the policy in UK political circles as well as in the civil service; perhaps delays were due to the stance taken by EU negotiators who recognised the weaknesses of Theresa May’s position; perhaps they were due to the complexity of the task of withdrawing from the EU. However, one important point to consider when assessing the length of the withdrawal process is the extent to which the goal of Brexit had become increasingly unclear. At a very basic level, what did the word Brexit even mean? That is, either intentionally or unintentionally, a confusing discourse began to emerge around the terms ‘hard’ Brexit and ‘soft’ Brexit. This lack of clarity enabled those who were against Brexit to challenge every aspect of withdrawal and even to argue that people could not really have known what they had voted for – leading to calls for a further referendum once the terms of the withdrawal had been agreed with the EU.

Thus, one of the key messages that can be drawn from the process is that, either intentionally or unintentionally, confusion emerged about what the UK’s negotiators were trying to achieve and whether they were honouring or deviating from the outcome of the referendum result. Arguably, this is a classic example of lack of goal clarity in a change management situation. So, while accepting that this lack of clarity may have been generated deliberately in certain quarters, its existence created mayhem in the withdrawal process.

Emrah Atar: The UK has officially left the EU – many things are happening today about Brexit. There are even theories that the country will enter into economic and social chaos since the main priority will be to negotiate a trade deal with the EU. What do you think Brexit will offer (affirmative and adverse) for the United Kingdom and the European Union in the short and long term?

Chris Rees: It is extremely difficult to try and predict how the UK will fare in its post-EU era; the only other country to have left the EU/EEC is Greenland in 1985. At an optimistic level, Brexit is an opportunity for the UK to rebuild its economic and cultural links with Commonwealth countries and the USA. The UK also has an opportunity to control its legislation, economy and borders to a degree which was not possible while the country was a member of the EU.  However, I am not convinced that the UK has a political vision which will serve to guide the direction of change over the coming years. For example, quite how the UK, as a non-EU member, will engage with the USA (perhaps under another Trump presidency) and China is, at best, uncertain. Successful change requires direction, and we are yet to see how, as an independent trading country, our economy will be guided to promote particular sectors, goods and knowledge, and forms of work on the world stage.     

Emrah Atar: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker (who was the President at this time) announced that London and Brussels have agreed on a new Brexit deal. How do you evaluate this agreement? Do you find the agreement or the plan realistic?

Chris Rees: While I am answering this question, the world is under the severe threat posed by the COVID-19 virus. It is quite possible that the fallout will disrupt the world economy for many years to come. Currently, there is speculation as to whether the EU itself can survive current events due to both the economic disruption and also the anger felt in member countries such as Italy and Spain about a perceived lack of support they have received from the EU during this dreadful time. Even as I write, there are calls for the transition period of the UK’s departure from the EU to be extended due to the massive uncertainties and practical difficulties surrounding these negotiations. Looking again at change management literature, one can see that models of change often incorporate recognition that institutions and organisations do not operate in isolation but rather, are subject to external drivers and resistors of change. Presently, the external environment is dominating change processes at national and local levels in a way that few have ever envisaged. One of the few matters that is clearly apparent is that many Brexit-related deals will have to be renegotiated or even scrapped.

Emrah Atar: Before leaving the European Union, it was said that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland could leave the United Kingdom. Scotland made that clear. What do you think of this situation? Can the United Kingdom be disbanded?

Chris Rees: In theory, yes, this is possible. Looking at voting patterns in the Brexit referendum, England and Wales voted for Brexit while Northern Ireland and Scotland voted Remain. At a fairly specific level, one of the major problems surrounding Brexit has been the issue of Northern Ireland and its border with the Republic of Ireland. Ultimately, this issue and the issue of independence for Scotland and Wales is likely to be settled through the ballot box. Arguably, if the people of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales see the UK prospering outside of the EU, this will strengthen the bonds between the countries; however, if Brexit ushers in adverse economic conditions, the calls for the breakup of the UK will echo all the louder.

One of the messages that resounds in the field of organisational change management relates to the need to involve people in a meaningful way in change processes; for example, recent literature on dialogic Organisation Development emphasises the importance of conversations and narratives when seeking to understand the direction of change and realities of life as seen by others. Taking this perspective, there is a desperate need for Boris Johnson’s majority government, made up primarily of MPs from England, to reach out to the people of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, to ensure that they have a say in the direction of the post-Brexit UK. I do need to stress, that this engagement with people also needs to occur within the regions of England itself. The voting patterns of the Brexit referendum provided an indication of the high level of discontentment of people living outside London and Manchester in the industrial towns of the North and farming and fishing communities of the South. It remains to be seen whether Brexit will serve to ameliorate or exacerbate these economic and social concerns.

Emrah Atar: Thank you very much for your time and sincere answers.


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