By: Nick Santangelo

By now, most people have heard of Brexit and have at least some understanding that it relates to Great Britain breaking away from the European Union (EU). But what exactly does that entail? Why and how is Britain leaving the EU?

To help Temple University students answer those questions, the College of Liberal Arts’ (CLA) Political Science Department is currently offering a Brexit elective course. According to Adjunct Associate Professor Alistair Howard, who also leads Temple’s Education Abroad office, the course was created in response to widespread student interest in the ever-more-bizarre events across the Atlantic.

Why Study Brexit?

In the course, Dr. Howard is treating Brexit as if it were a case study through which students can gain a better general understanding of many different political science issues. A recent class meeting, for example, challenged students to think about identity and nationalism through the lens of Brexit. It’s a teaching approach that’s common to the various social sciences taught within CLA. The idea is that students walk away able to use what they’ve learned in real-world scenarios.

 “What we'll do in this course is use Brexit as a focusing event through which we can talk about all these other things you've been learning about in different courses,” explains Dr. Howard. “So even if you're not specifically interested in Britain, it's still a topical moving target to which you can apply your knowledge.”

So even students who aren’t specifically interested in Britain and/or Europe can see many of Brexit’s themes reflected in contemporary United States politics.

Somewhat paradoxically, Dr. Howard points out that the Brexit campaign that succeeding in winning a “leave” decision from voters had anti-establishment roots but was led by the establishment.

“Elites were involved in leading the Brexit campaign,” notes the professor. “So on the one hand you've got what most people call populism, a populist anti-establishment movement, but it's led by elites and people who are just outside the core establishment elite. And that seems to me to be true, also, of the American political situation.”

Students will explore those parallels through their research. One recent project split the course into two groups and had either side research Britain leaving the EU with or without a transition plan in place. This sort of assignment helps students prepare for the research they’ll eventually do in their capstone courses while bringing them closer to understanding Brexit’s potential consequences. Students will then get another assignment like this as they come out of Spring Break next week and will later engage in a debate instead of taking a midterm exam.

Deal or No Deal?

As for the potential deal, British Parliament has repeatedly failed to pass one based on its past negotiations with the EU. For its part, the EU declined to renegotiate with British Prime Minister Theresa May after a recently failed round of parliamentary debate.

With no plan in place, British airplanes would technically not be able to land in Europe. Everything from pharmaceuticals to livestock to foodstuffs and beyond could be negatively affected. Accommodations would presumably be made, but even then the cost overruns and time delays of inspecting goods could be astronomical.

In class, one of Dr. Howard’s students asked why parliament was dedicating so much time and effort to debating a plan that would only be in place temporarily while Britain moves toward permanent Brexit arrangements. The professor offered four reasons for continued parliamentary obstructionism:

  1. The need to set out demands for future negotiations with Europe

  2. Internal party-political conflict between MPs

  3. MPs’ need to satisfy their district voters

  4.The desire to express and perform on the parliamentary stage

“A lot of political activity is expressive, performative, and it's part of what makes us human,” says Dr. Howard. “It's like when you go into a meeting and just want the meeting to be about the decision, so it needs to be as efficient as possible. Once we've heard the pro- and anti- sides, then who else needs to speak? We know the arguments, but the meeting is also about the participants, the committee members or the staff members being heard.”

So, where will those performances, negotiations and party politics lead Great Britain? While a deal seems likely, Dr. Howard says he’s not in the prediction business and doesn’t know if a deal will be reached. Students will have to keep an eye on the news and, if it returns next year, enroll in CLA’s Brexit course to draw their own conclusions.

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