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What I learned from teaching Brexit to freshmen

This past spring, I first taught a new freshman seminar titled “Imagining Europe,” focusing on the shifting geographic, political, economic, social and cultural identities that constituted Europeanness.

Students debated which city should be considered the heart of Europe and analyzed the UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) Champions League and the Eurovision song contest as representations of European cultural identity. They traced the continental European origins of many of the groceries that my husband and I bought online for our home in York, England, where I spend much of each year.

Combing through my old grocery receipts, my students discovered that nearly 30% of our UK grocery bill — mostly alcohol and produce — came from Europe. I joked that, after Brexit, my British husband and I were going to have to start drinking less French wine and Belgian beer.

As part of the course, I required my students to follow media coverage of the ongoing Brexit negotiations, and create a “Brexit log.” The Brexit log traced how their chosen media outlet was reporting the impending divorce between Britain and the European Union, which was originally scheduled to take effect on March 29, 2019.

I wouldn’t be able to repeat the assignment, I told myself, as Brexit would be done and dusted by the time I offered the course again this autumn, and there wouldn’t be enough media coverage of the post-withdrawal agreement negotiations to fill a weekly logbook. Still, here was a unique opportunity to have my students analyze, in real time, the political drama of Britain’s decoupling from Europe.

Yet Brexit ended up dragging on and on — and I’ve begun to worry that extending the deadline any more could tear the UK further apart, as the costs of delay rise and the 52% of Brits who voted “Leave” feel evermore disenfranchised.

So, when this fall semester rolled around, Brexit was still with us. Former Prime Minister Theresa May’s government could not agree on a deal with the EU that the British Parliament would accept. She was forced to go, cap in hand, to the EU not once but twice, first in March 2019 and again that April, to ask for an extension on Brexit, ultimately securing a new date of October 31, 2019.

Then she was forced to step down this past May. The pro-Leave Conservative Party renegade Boris Johnson replaced May as prime minister on the back of a do-or-die pledge to bring Britain out of Europe by Halloween.

And once more, my freshmen are now following press reports of political intrigue, intra-EU wrangling and forecasted economic upheaval in the run-up to a second mid-semester Brexit deadline.

The assignment has yielded double dividends, but after the passage of the Letwin amendment in an extraordinary sitting of parliament this Saturday, it seems just possible that I might have the chance to roll the Brexit-watch assignment over for a third semester.

Parliament does not normally sit on the weekends. Saturday’s session was only the fifth weekend session since the outbreak of World War II; the last such session was held on April 3, 1982, when Parliament debated invading the Falkland Islands. But on Saturday, MPs came together to debate a motion of support for the withdrawal deal that Johnson unexpectedly negotiated with the European Union last week.

The agreement, which effectively keeps Northern Ireland inside the EU market, even as it maintains that the nation remains part of the UK customs area, alienated members of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. The party sees it as the thin edge of the wedge dividing Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK and vowed to oppose the legislation.

The loss of DUP votes was a blow to the prime minister, who does not have a working majority in Parliament, and whose government has lost all but one vote in the House of Commons since he took office. Nonetheless, the staunch support of the European Research Group (the 100-strong caucus of hardline pro-Leavers within the Conservative Party) as well as a handful of ex-Conservative Independent MPs and renegade Labor Leavers, gave Johnson cause for confidence that he just might be able to win a motion of support for his proposals on Saturday.

The timing was crucial because the Benn Act, passed in September, mandated that if the government had not secured consent for a withdrawal act by October 19, it would be legally bound to go back to the EU and request a further extension until at least January 31, 2020.

But then Parliament threw a wrench in the prime minister’s plans by passing the Letwin amendment on Saturday. By stipulating that only the passage of a Withdrawal bill — not simply a motion in favor of Johnson’s deal — would count as consent, the Letwin amendment effectively forced the prime minister to request an extension from Brussels.

Now, Brexit could end up being pushed back again. While such an outcome could be convenient for teaching purposes, it would be disastrous for both Britain and Europe.

“Brexit fatigue” is setting in. Those advocating further extension believe that, with enough time and negotiation, a consensus can be found for a more palatable form of Brexit. But the costs of delay are rising: economic paralysis and delayed investment, the crowding out of the British parliamentary agenda and, perhaps most dangerously, the alienation of the 52% who voted “leave” in the June 2016 Brexit referendum and increasingly think Parliament is intent on thwarting the will of the people. These costs need to be weighed against the potential benefits of continued extension.

The prime minister is doing his best to subvert the Benn amendment and push his Brexit deal across the finish line by Halloween, but my students will not be surprised if the deadline ends up getting pushed back yet again.

The freshmen in my “Imagining Europe” seminar come from a half-dozen different countries and are following press coverage of Brexit from media outlets in the United States, the UK, China, Korea, Serbia, Spain and Peru. Various outlets in these countries have given the negotiations a different spin, but the one consistent point in all coverage has been the complexity of the negotiations, and their wide-reaching implications — not only for Britain and Europe but for the global economy as well.

When we started the semester, most of the class expressed confusion about why Britain and Europe hadn’t managed to sort things out over the previous three years. Now, they all appreciate that even if the withdrawal agreement is passed into law by Halloween, Britain and Europe will still be negotiating the fallout of the 2016 Brexit referendum for years to come.

CNN