On 16 October, CERES hosted Dr. Ian Cooper from the Brexit Institute at Dublin City University. His lecture focused on the complex nature of preparing for and implementing the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union after the June 2016 referendum called by Prime Minister David Cameron. In the end, 51.9% voted in favour of leaving. Dr. Cooper’s talk, “The 9 Circles of Brexit: Britain’s Path out of the EU,” argued that any departure of a member state from the EU is only possible after passing through a series of concentric circles.

To elaborate, Cooper explained that the plan must first gain approval from the first seven circles of policymakers, with groups ranging in size from just eleven members to an unfathomable 512 million. Those seven circles include: the Brexit War Cabinet, the full Cabinet, the Tory Caucus, the Governing Majority, Parliament, the UK electorate, and the EU population at large.  In this “multi-level game,” current UK Prime Minster Theresa May must draft a plan of action that will cover the withdrawal, transition, and future of the UK-EU relationship, while maintaining ongoing approval from each and every circle. Unfortunately, each circle has a very different understanding of what an acceptable Brexit deal looks like.

But it is not just these different conceptions that make the situation so messy. According to Dr. Cooper, the real source of complexity is May’s trilemma, because she has made three promises, only two of which she can keep. The first of these is that Britain will withdraw from the EU Customs Union, the Single Market (free movement of goods, people, services and capital), and the European Court of Justice. The second is that a land border will not be imposed between the Republic of Ireland, an EU member, and Northern Ireland, part of the UK. Finally, she has promised that there will not be a sea border between the island of Ireland and Britain. If she chooses to keep both of the border promises, however, then May will have to implement a “soft Brexit” by not withdrawing completely from the Customs Union and Single Market. If May wants to keep her first promise, then she has to implement a “hard Brexit” and place a border between Britain and the EU. Dr. Cooper cautioned, however, this strategy would compromise the Tory Party supply agreement with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which currently props up Tories’ governing majority.

Finally, we arrive at the eighth and ninth circles: two potential models for the future UK-EU relationship. The eighth, the “Norway model,” involves a more integrated approach, whereby Britain becomes a “rule-taker” and not a “rule-maker.” By contrast, the ninth circle, represented by the
“Canada model,” distances the UK from the EU, requiring Britain to draft completely new agreements with desired trading partners.

And what happens if the UK government fails to come to a consensus on Brexit? Some suggest that Britain will simply leave the EU and face economic calamity, whereas others claim that the anticipated exit date of 29 March 2019 will be pushed back until a deal can be struck. Dr. Cooper noted that a campaign for a new referendum on the matter is currently gaining traction and is commonly referred to as a “People’s Vote.” Either way, in light of the looming Article 50 withdrawal deadline, Britain needs to secure a deal; without an exit strategy, the ability of the UK to act within the international economy will be seriously hindered. With so many political ramifications and strategic permutations at play, it is hard to see how May will navigate these turbulent waters.

Brexit is a game of “Deal or No Deal.” In the banker role, Theresa May must make an offer and the first seven circles will have to decide whether to take the offer on the table. The implications of this decision, however, will affect millions of lives in both the UK and the EU. If the deadline passes without a deal, there will certainly be more losers than winners. The ongoing Brexit saga is a stark reminder to governments that democracy involves not only assessing the will of the people but also being prepared to act on it, seriously and wholeheartedly.

by Lisa Irimescu and Michael Kitching, CERES MA candidates

23 October 2018


For more information visit: