I was recently invited to speak to a group of committed entrepreneurs in Limburg on a subject that has been keeping me and my team under its spell every week since mid-March 2017: Brexit.
The last outbreak of Brexit fever occurred in the second half of October, in the run-up to the end of the second extension of the Brexit date, foreseen for 31 October 2019.
While a Brexit deal was voted on for the first time in three years in the UK Parliament - namely the last deal Boris Johnson concluded with the European Union - the British government's plan to complete the entire Brexit process in three days was voted down by the same Parliament (308 votes in favor - versus 322 against: "so the nays have it"). The question was raised - after analyzing the positions of various “yes” voters - whether the Brexit deal could, in any case, have achieved a majority in second reading without further amendments. Boris Johnson was thus forced by his Parliament to ask the EU for a postponement of Brexit, after which the EU granted a further extension until 31 January 2020. So, back to the drawing board once again. This latest outbreak of Brexit fever was averted until at least 31 January 2020.
The group of Limburg entrepreneurs had 2 questions: how did we actually get to this point and what’s going to happen next? What has happened in the three years since the Brexit referendum has been so confusing and unpredictable that many a political commentator, EU or UK watcher, or indeed any other attentive observer, seldom dares to make any predictions about the outcome.
While browsing through the literally dozens of slide decks in my digital Brexit archive, I stumbled upon one slide headed "Heresies" – from a 2017 book by Karel De Gucht, whom we invited as keynote speaker for the first KPMG Brexit seminar in the spring of 2017. The book contains a collection of two years of columns on current affairs, in which the former European Commissioner also mentions the Brexit referendum of June 2016.
I was struck by a few bold predictions in a column from June 2016, which I will summarize below. It is, of course, tempting - and a little tongue-in-cheek - to see which of these predictions still make sense and which of them can be classified as 'doomsday' or 'pure fantasy':
Equally intriguing are the references in the column to the insights of American historian Barbara Tuchman in her book the "March of Folly" about historical mistakes made by policymakers, and how these are ultimately the result of a series of - sometimes understandable, sometimes incomprehensible - wrong decisions, wrong strategic choices and ignorance of facts.
This book is of course extremely fascinating in the context of the Brexit saga and is perhaps also a plea for the preservation of the history lessons in the curriculum of the current generation of students and schoolchildren.
After all, the decision to hold a referendum by the then Prime Minister David Cameron, the decision to organize elections by the subsequent Prime Minister May (as a result of which she lost her majority and had to sit with the support of 10 Unionists of the DUP), the de-facto expulsion from the Conservative Party of twenty one moderate Conservatives by the current Prime Minister Boris Johnson (as a result of which he probably lost the last Brexit vote with 322 dissenting votes and 308 in favor), have all led to the situation that we find ourselves in today: new elections on 12 December 2019.
The question now is will the 12 December 2019 elections prove to be yet another example of clouded judgement, or will they clear the fog around the way forward once and for all?
In my opinion, it might reveal the following two scenarios:
In other words, whatever happens today, Brexit is not likely to disappear from the agenda in 2020, or in the coming years actually. Perhaps you too will feel the urge to re-read this blog post again in a few months or years to see whether my prediction was right or merely 'doomsday' thinking.
I sincerely hope, by way of early New Year's greetings, the latter is the case.