Since David Cameron’s proposal for an European Union referendum for Britain in 2013, the British people and now the parliament have been deeply divided over the extent to which Britain should be connected to the rest of Europe. Since the referendum’s decision for Britain’s withdrawal from the organization in 2016, Parliament has had trouble deciding on the terms of “divorce” with hard-line Conservatives calling for a complete separation from the EU and members of the Labour party saying they will not accept a deal that does not include an additional referendum. Polarization literature and a lack of institutional forbearance show that current Brexit negotiations include democratic threats.
Polarization literature addresses a lack of compromise and gridlock as threats to democracy. One way in which polarization is a threat to democracy is in making compromise costly and increasing the probability of political gridlock. Gridlock has occurred in Britain. Prime Minister Theresa May’s separation plan has been rejected 3 times. In addition to the current plan, other plans have been voted on; however, none have gotten a majority of votes. Compromise on this issue is politically costly as members of May’s own party, the Conservative, have threatened attempting various ways of removing her from office if a separation agreement is not reached before the European Parliament elections in May, while at the same time have called for a complete separation from the EU, an absolute position. She had said that she would step down as leader if her plan passed on the third try, but even that did not lead to a deal. One of the reasons it may have failed is that Labour lawmakers “biggest fear” is “that a staunch pro-Brexit successor to Mrs. May would rip up the parties’ compromise plan and embark on a much more complete split with Europe.” Apparently, May offered guarantees that the successor they most fear would not take over, yet still an agreement has yet to be reached. Polarization may be leading to the failure to compromise because it leads to heightened threat perceptions of the opposing party. The Labour party’s reluctance to vote for the plan, despite guarantees against the successor that they really do not want to have power, shows that members of the party still feel threatened by the Conservatives even though what they fear should not come true. Polarization may be leading to gridlock, but whether it is or is not, democracy has been threatened as compromise has been made more costly and gridlock remains.
In addition to polarization literature showing the democratic threat Brexit negotiations have brought, a lack of institutional forbearance shows cause for concern. Institutional forbearance or “avoiding actions that, while respecting the letter of the law obviously violate its spirit”, as Levitsky and Ziblatt define it in How Democracies Die, is a norm necessary to protect democratic institutions from erosion. A lack of it threatens democracy as the political system does not function as it should. A lack of institutional forbearance has occurred, as Parliament’s voting on plans other than May’s occurred despite the objections of the Prime Minister, “an extraordinary step,” according to Benjamin Mueller of the New York Times. Parliament has challenged the Prime Minister’s power, challenging the current political system. As none of the alternatives voted on in this way got enough votes, many due to the abstention of some members from voting, this may show that Brexit negotiations are less of a threat to democracy than it may have appeared previously, as breaking the norm of respecting the Prime Minister’s objections did not lead to any policy success and thus, was not legitimated. On the other hand, gridlock remained, perhaps delegitimizing the system as being able to get stuff done. This threatens democracy as a delegitimized system increases the likelihood of an authoritarian taking control. As Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan’s The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes mentions, democratic breakdown can occur when governments lose legitimacy.
A sudden democratic breakdown does not appear likely with Brexit negotiations as they currently stand, yet a lack of compromise, gridlock and lack of institutional forbearance show that some democratic backsliding has occurred.
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