Three years have passed since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, yet the country struggles to agree on a way forward. The uncertainty this creates is being felt across its research community.
As far as settling questions go, Britain’s decision to hold a referendum over its membership of the EU in June 2016 has not done the job. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: the vote was essentially a gamble former Prime Minister David Cameron took in order to quell the Eurosceptic wing of his Conservative party. And frankly, his expectation was that the electorate would opt to keep the status quo. Little thought was put into the scenario that eventually came to pass, let alone interpreting what ‘leaving the EU’ even means in practice.
Nevertheless, the manner in which events have unfolded since 23 June 2016 continues to stupefy observers of all political persuasions. One might have thought that the narrow majority in favour of Leave would have been the cue for a unifying figure to achieve consensus around some kind of ‘soft’ Brexit. Remaining a member of a political union while opting out of its principal political objectives (such as the common currency and the freedom of movement of citizens) was unsustainable in the long run, but a savvy leader might have recognized that, due to geography alone, close cultural and economic ties are desirable and indeed inevitable in any future relationship between the two blocks.
Alas, Theresa May, the Prime Minister installed soon after the referendum, has not been that unifying figure. Instead, she has presided over a dynamic of increasing polarization and acrimony. Remainers have felt marginalized by the aggressive rhetoric used against them when they point out the practical difficulties in cutting ties with the EU, and Leavers have become increasingly intransigent as they sink into paranoia regarding their opponents’ ‘true’ intentions of overturning the referendum result.
As a result, the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated with the EU by the May administration alongside the Political Declaration on the future relationship between the UK and the EU — an achievement widely recognized in diplomatic circles within and beyond Britain as being significant — has failed to receive sufficient political support to pass three separate votes in parliament, its substance largely ignored as the two political factions shout past each other. Were it not for extension granted at the very last minute by the European Council, Britain would have already crashed out of the EU in chaotic circumstances. The pragmatism for which it was once known has deserted its shores, and uncertainty now reigns supreme.
For scientists, this situation is already taking its toll. It is no secret that an overwhelming majority of them were against Brexit (Nat. Phys. 12, 523; 2016), and grass-roots organizations such as Scientists for EU were among the first to get off the ground in the run up to the referendum, and among the most vocal in defending the value of close links with the EU since it took place. Moreover, the international make-up of the British scientific community (which includes, of course, both EU citizens studying and working in the UK, as well as British citizens carrying out research in other EU countries) makes it a particularly affected constituency. It is one that, shamefully, was largely disenfranchised from the referendum process itself, and then lampooned for being part of the ‘metropolitan liberal elite’, a concept all but endorsed by May in an infamous ‘citizens of nowhere’ speech at the Conservative Party conference in September 2016.
Inevitably, headlines have focused on the effects that the Brexit uncertainty has on scientific funding (Nature 568, 5; 2019), and in diminishing British influence internationally. But these potential costs can’t be assessed in isolation, as if detached from everyday life. The physiological health and psychological well-being of the nation also matter. After three years of heated, confused and contradictory debate over their political future, many scientists are worried about the status of their jobs, friends, families and communities.
These stresses and anxieties are difficult to capture objectively, but they hugely affect the lives of individuals, and they seem to be systematically underappreciated by the almost narcissistically self-referential British press and political class. Despite the agreement on citizens’ rights, for example, there is no way to prevent discrimination against EU nationals in the long run: what may seem to be superficial changes, such as the eventual introduction of separate passport queues for UK and non-UK citizens at the British border, eventually translate into more significant policy changes, such as the intention to ask EU students to pay the full non-EU university fees from 2021/2022 onwards. This would effectively put the UK university system outside the financial ability of all — except the richest — EU students.
One might argue that British universities should be primarily for British students. But one should not be surprised if the students and academics negatively affected by this policy conclude there are other, less hostile environments for them to build their careers and lives in. Ultimately, they will be Britain’s loss.