By Jedson Boyle
On June 23, 2016, 51.9% of the voters in the United Kingdom voted to bring the country’s membership in the European Union to an end. Since its creation, the United Kingdom has had a complicated and often testy relationship with the rest of Europe, as manifested by centuries of wars from the Norman Conquest, through the Hundred Years War, all the way to the world wars. Often, as the UK went through times of war, so did Europe, though removed from the rest of the continent turned out to be a blessing as it was mostly safe from invasion. However, this blessing was a bit of a double-edged sword.
After the death, destruction, and devastation of the Second World War, the countries in Europe wanted to find a new way to keep the peace. There were growing calls for the countries in Europe to come together and to stop fighting. As a result, in 1957, six nations in Europe signed the Treaty of Rome, thus creating the European Economic Community. However, the United Kingdom was not one of the countries that joined. The UK applied three times to join this union. Twice, this application was rejected by President Charles de Gaulle of France, who was worried that British membership would weaken the French position in the EEC.
Finally, on January 1, 1973, the United Kingdom officially joined the European Economic Community. Though British Prime Minister Edward Heath considered this achievement to be his greatest accomplishment. He and the Conservative Party were voted out of office in the 1974 UK General Election. Former Labour PM Harold Wilson returned to office vowing to put the new membership up for referendum. The British voters approved membership in 1975 by approximately a two-to-one margin.
The UK didn’t integrate with the EEC as much as many in Europe had hoped. In 1979 the European Monetary System was created, encouraging countries in the EEC to coordinate their currencies, creating an Exchange Rate Mechanism. This was seen as a step in the creation of a single currency. The UK was the only country not to join this, which was one of the first displays of how the UK, even in the European Union, was still often isolated from it.
More than a decade later, in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the early 1990s seemed to be a promising time for Europe, as it appeared as if further European integration was assured. On February 7, 1992, the Treaty of Maastricht was signed. This lead to the official creation of the European Union. The organization made laws relating to justice and home affairs and adopted a foreign and security policy. A significant part of the European Union was the Single Market which allowed for the free movement of goods and services. This was made possible by a customs union, which eliminated customs barriers between the EU member states. The people of each of the member states were still citizens of their own respective country, but now had EU citizenship as well. Anyone could now move about and live in any European state. They could also vote for the European Parliament and in any local election in the country in which they lived in.
It took a couple of years and a couple of failed referendums for everyone to ratify the treaty, but every single state eventually did. It was very difficult for Conservative Prime Minister John Major to get ratification through the parliament. Even more, the UK did not actually integrate with Europe regarding the social chapter, which dealt with worker’s pay until after the 1997 UK General Election in which the Labour Party, led by Tony Blair, swept to power. The UK later on also refused to adopt the Euro, the single currency.
Many people in Britain wanted out of the EU. However, these people did not really have a lot of actual political power until after the 2010 elections when Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron (alongside a coalition with the centrist Liberal Democrats) took power.
After the 2010 elections the UK Independence Party (UKIP) a right-wing Eurosceptic party led by Nigel Farage, began to rise in the polls. They surged into third place, ahead of the Liberal Democrats. This party was peeling away the right wing of the Conservative Party. So in the leadup to the 2015 elections, in an attempt to garner right wing support, Cameron announced his support for an In/Out referendum on British membership in the European Union. Polls in the weeks and months leading up to the election showed that Labour and Conservative would likely have about the same number of seats, and be far short of the 326 seats needed to form a majority.
However, as Big Ben struck ten on May 7, 2015 and the polls closed, the exit poll was revealed and the result was shocking. The Conservatives, while they would be short of 326, would gain seats and would be even further ahead of Labour. The next day, not only did Cameron return as PM, the Conservatives won 331 seats, 5 more than needed for an overall majority.
Given the narrowness of the new majority, and the weaker-than-expected showing of UKIP, it was clear that David Cameron owed much to the Eurosceptics; if he were to remain politically viable, he would have to follow through on his promise to call the referendum. Eventually, a referendum was called for June 23, 2016.
Cameron himself was opposed to Brexit and most of the British political parties were against it, including Labour and a large portion of the Conservative Party Some Conservatives and all of UKIP supported leaving the EU. The polls in the last weeks and months showed Remain winning by a relatively narrow margin.
The polls closed at 10 PM on June 23 and two hours later the votes came trickling in. Early in the morning, the BBC projected that Leave would win. The political fallout was shocking. A couple hours later, Prime Minister Cameron announced his resignation and Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England was forced to call for calm. The financial markets across the world plummeted that day, as did the pound sterling.
The race for Leader of the Conservative Party wrapped up fairly quickly. Home Secretary Theresa May was voted in on July 11 and she became Prime Minister on July 13. Some people did not want Theresa May to enact Brexit, but she believed that “Brexit means Brexit.”
Brexit, of course was not going to happen right away. May had to trigger Article 50 on March 20, 2017, which would be the start of a two year process for Britain to leave the European Union. However, May would have to negotiate a deal with Europe on the terms on which the UK would leave and the closeness of the UK to Europe would have to be determined. Then, May would have to get this deal through the British Parliament. Unfortunately for her, her party only had a narrow majority in the House of Commons. However, polls showed that if a general election were held that day, she could expand her majority to over 100.
On April 18, May announced she would call a snap general election for June 8, 2017 to ensure “certainty and stability” for the years to come. Polls showed the Conservatives leading Labour by 20 points. However, in the weeks following, the lead narrowed. However, it still seemed likely that she would still expand her majority. Not as much as she initially hoped, but life was supposed to become easier for Theresa May. However, when all the votes were counted, though the Conservatives were the largest party, no party received an overall majority.
After this shocking results, many speculated that Prime Minister May would resign, but the next day, with her husband by her side, she announced she would remain Prime Minister. She cut a confidence-and-supply deal with a conservative Northern Irish Party called the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). This meant that the DUP would allow the Conservatives to govern and support them in budget votes. Formal negotiations began near the end of June.
Negotiations continued throughout the year. Knowing that a parliamentary vote would be tough, May attempted to allow her deal to be enacted without going through Parliament. However, on December 13, the opposition got enough government MP’s to side with them to force Theresa May to have her deal sent through the parliament before being enacted. Two days later, the second phase of negotiations began.
By March, substantial progress in these talks had been made. On March 19, the UK and European negotiators agreed that there would be a transition period after March 29, 2019. The transition period would end December 31, 2020. During this transition period, the United Kingdom would pay into the EU budget and keep access to the EU markets. It would continue to accept the free movement of people into and out of the European Union. However, its part in EU decision making would end.
The negotiators also reached an agreement on the fishing policy. The fishing policy would allow only a British seafood exporters tariff, and in return, the UK would get access to EU fishing markets as long as EU fishing fleets were allowed to continue to fish in UK waters. The status of EU citizens before and after Brexit was also decided. This stage of negotiations was pretty much finished and on July 8, 2018, Prime Minister May presented a general outline of what the United Kingdom’s relationship with the EU would look like after the withdrawal. Many hardline Brexiteers were outraged (hard brexiteers support the cutting off of all ties with EU. Soft Brexiteers support the UK still having some formal ties to the EU. The Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union David Davis (both of whom wanted a more distant relationship with the EU) resigned upon the presentation of the plan. The European Commission rejected the plan made by the negotiators. Negotiations continued until November, 2018 when Theresa May presented her EU Withdrawal Agreement and the political declaration (revised) stating what the United Kingdom’s relationship would be with the EU after Brexit.
The draft withdrawal agreement was 585 pages long. There was rather muddled language on whether the United Kingdom would leave the Single Market or the Customs Union. A very contentious issue was the Irish border. The country of Ireland borders Northern Ireland, a constituent country in the United Kingdom. Ireland is in the European Union, and part of the European Union includes free movement of people. Ireland and the UK have had a contentious relationship since Ireland gained independence from the UK. Relations did improve in 1998, when both sides signed the Good Friday Agreement, therefore ending hostilities. One of the things that had led to stability along the Irish border was the open border. If there was to be a hard border between the UK and Ireland, violence could break out and relations between the two countries would sour once again. Therefore, in the withdrawal agreement, it was agreed that during the current transition period (ending December 31, 2020) a free trade deal would be worked out between the EU and the UK. If there is no agreement six months before the specified date, the transition period could be jointly extended between the EU and the United Kingdom for a period yet to be determined. If this does not occur there would be a hard border.
The Irish border is only a part of this backstop. The backstop has “a single customs territory between the Union and the United Kingdom.”, which would begin at the end of the transition period. There would be certain “non-customs checks” on goods traveling between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. When the transition period comes to an end, the final agreement will be managed by a joint committee that would make unchangeable decisions based on what both parties agree to. A joint panel would be created to manage any disputes between the two countries.
Prime Minister May announced that the Parliament would hold a “meaningful vote” on the Brexit Deal in mid-December, but she postponed the vote to January 15 after it became clear she did not have enough time to get the support she needed. When it did occur, her deal was defeated. It was the largest commons defeat for a government in UK history, with the final count coming out to 202-432. Not completely defeated, however, she tried again to have her deal voted on. The second vote was held on March 12. This time, it failed by a slightly narrower margin. The next day the parliament voted to reject and “no-deal Brexit” in which the UK would leave the EU without any deal.
Most people oppose a “no-deal Brexit” for good reason. If this scenario were to occur, it would cause enough chaos; in fact, the UK has already deployed 3,500 troops in case this catastrophe were to occur. Currently, goods move between the UK and the EU with no checkpoints, allowing trade to be very quick across the English Channel. In the event of no deal, the UK would leave the Single Market and the Customs Union immediately. Customs checks would be deployed immediately and trade would ground almost to a halt. In addition, flights would be grounded, and travel to Europe would be practically impossible. Worst of all, there would be food shortages due to trade becoming much more difficult. This could be an event that impacts the UK for a long time and never recovers from.
Consequently, some people are calling for a second referendum on whether the UK should leave the EU. The European Commission indicated that it would extend the period if a second referendum is to happen. Polls show that much of the UK public would vote to undo Brexit and remain in the EU. However, after this long and dreadful dispute, it is likely that relations between the UK and Europe would be strained for the years to come, and on March 14, 2019, the UK Parliament rejected a second referendum.
On March 29, the UK Parliament held a third vote. Prime Minister May promised that she would step down if her deal got through. Even so, though the margin was much narrower this time, it still failed. The week before, on March 22, the parliament had voted to extend the deadline to April 12 and on April 10, the British Parliament voted to extend it to October 31.
So far, no substantial progress has been made. On May 23, elections to the European Parliament were held and Nigel Farage’s newly-formed Brexit Party won the most seats in the UK’s share of seats. However, many pro-EU citizens breathed a sigh of relief because more voters cast ballots for pro-European parties that Eurosceptic parties. Across Europe, many were relieved that the wave of far-right Eurosceptics that was expected to sweep into Brussels did not materialize. However, on May 24, Prime Minister Theresa May announced that she would resign her post effective on June 7. Her resignation as Conservative Party leader took effect on June 7 as a leadership election began. On July 23, Boris Johnson was announced as the winner of the leadership election, defeating Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. He moved into Downing Street the following day.
Boris Johnson has said that if he has to take the UK out of the European Union without a deal, he will do it. However, in the last days before October 31, Boris Johnson was forced to extend the deadline to January 31. A few days, Boris Johnson called yet another snap election.
It appears as if the entire Brexit situation has come to a complete stalemate. If Boris Johnson and his Conservatives win the election on December 12, he will still be in a difficult situation, especially if he fails to get a majority. There are many different factions within the parliament, many of which transcend party lines. Some support Brexit no matter the consequences. Some want Brexit but would prefer that the UK and the EU reach a deal. Some oppose Brexit completely and want a second referendum. The problem is, no side seems to command a majority in the parliament and each side is waiting to see which side blinks first. Whether the Conservatives or Labour get a majority, it may not be enough if the parties themselves are divided.
The only way, something may get done, is if the Liberal Democrats, the most pro-EU party in the United Kingdom, win the elections. They would likely call a second referendum and, based on the fact that most UK voters currently prefer to stay in the EU, the UK would remain. Of course the polls were wrong the first time, but overall the polls were closer than they are now. However, the problem for the Liberal Democrats is that they are currently polling in a relatively close third. Overall, Labour, the party currently polling second, is slightly more pro-EU than the Conservatives, but many working class Labour voters (especially in the northern part of England) backed Leave in the Brexit referendum. This uncertainty brings many uncertainties regarding the upcoming election. Is it possible that more educated Labour votes in and around London that backed Remain will ditch Labour and vote Liberal Democrat? Is it possible that the 29% of Conservatives that voted Remain will ditch Johnson and vote Liberal Democrat? Or will Labour and the Liberal Democrats continue to poll close enough to each other so that the anti-Johnson vote is split and the Conservatives secure a plurality, maybe even a majority of seats? Now that the Brexit Party is withdrawing its candidates in constituencies held by the Conservatives, the pro-Brexit votes will no longer be split, thus making it even easier for Johnson to win.
Whatever happens, it is clear that the UK political system will never be the same. Even if the UK decides that it wants back in on the EU, the relationship between the two entities is likely to be damaged for decades to come. The relationship has never been easy, and this recent upheaval will complicate it, as well as the entire European scene even more. Due to the rise of populist Eurosceptic parties throughout Europe, many are doubting whether the EU would even survive a successful Brexit. Opposing this trend, however, are the election results across Europe in recent months which suggest that this tide may be slowing. In Austria, the populist Freedom Party suffered their worst defeat in over a decade. In Finland, the populist Finns failed to win the elections there. And last Sunday, the liberal pro-EU Romanian President won a 30-point landslide reelection victory. Anti-EU populist parties have also taken hits in polls recently. For example, the far-right AFD in Germany has dropped to fourth place as opposed to about 15 months ago when it was polling in second. Perhaps the people of Europe are seeing what it is like to travel down a road of uncertainty and thinking about choosing a different path.
There really is no way to predict the outcome of Brexit. In fact, we cannot even begin to predict the outcome until after the elections on December 12. No matter where the polls stand now, they could be radically different as the election date approaches. And so could the future of Brexit.