A globalized world means a lot of things, most of which is relegated to the back of our minds in the bustle of day-to-day life. The Brexit enigma too often fails to become imminent to those outside Europe, resting in our peripheral vision. This is partly owed to the large amount of time that has passed since Britain ‘left’ the European Union, without actually having left the European Union.
Even until the December 12 general elections, with the possibility (not probability) of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s victory, there were speculations regarding the future of the UK vis-a-vis leaving the EU. However, with the re-election of Conservative Party leader Boris Johnson as Prime Minister with an overwhelming majority, UK’s path to Brexit seems strikingly clear. In this environment, there is a need to clearly understand what has led to and what will potentially follow Brexit, hailed as possibly the most important moment in European history since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The idea of leaving the European Union has been on Britain’s mind from the moment it joined. Post Second World War tensions were high, and Britain’s economic growth was frightfully low. At the same time, in an attempt to ensure lasting peace, a few European states established the European Economic Community (EEC) hoping that economic interdependence would help avoid conflict. The EEC was a predecessor to the EU and surprisingly their old war ally Britain was not invited to the party.
In fact, in 1963, when the United Kingdom first applied for membership in the EEC, France’s President Charles de Gaulle vetoed its application. He claimed that the UK would always be on America’s side, even as a part of the EEC. UK became a member only in 1973 and just two years later a national referendum was held on whether to leave the Common Market. 67% voted to stay. In 1993, under the Maastricht Treaty, the European Union was formed to integrate states economically and politically, and to establish a common citizenship, currency and unified foreign policy. The EU was not bereft of skirmishes. Some of these would quite literally be the epitome of ‘first-world problems’ such as petty trade barriers on commodities ranging from beef to chocolate. Others were more prominent, such as those regarding immigration and sharing the burden of the crisis surrounding the Euro.
Three overarching reasons that fuelled the ‘eurosceptic’ view and simultaneously drove the ‘Leave campaign’ in Britain were sovereignty, immigration and the Euro. British conservatives loathed the idea that the mighty United Kingdom must take orders from someone else. The growing power of the European Parliament, the ridiculous amount of red tape and the growing lack of autonomy were major causes of resentment against the EU. The economic crisis of 2008 and the subsequent failure to deal with the flaws of the Euro made people not only in the UK but across the continent skeptical about the economic benefits of EU membership.
Lastly, what arguably had the most effect on the voters during the referendum was the free flow of people within the EU. Employment of locals posed one problem and a perceived relationship between immigration and crime posed another. The Migration Advisory Committee, however, in its review of the evidence of the labour market impact of EU migration, found that migrants have had little or no impact on the employment and unemployment outcomes of the UK-born workforce.
What should be noted is that EU states have a choice to restrict free movement. It was a decision made by Tony Blair’s government in 2003 that allowed full free movement, which is what led to an increase in immigration. Nevertheless, in the EU referendum campaign, the Leave campaigners pinned the surge of workers on the EU and not the British government.
In 2013, Prime Minister David Cameron promised a national referendum on European Union membership, convinced that ‘Remain’ camp would win handily. That turned out to be a serious miscalculation. The referendum passed by a slim 51.9% in favour of leaving. However, there were stark differences across the UK. Northern Ireland and London voted to remain in the EU, as did Scotland, leading to renewed calls for another referendum on Scottish independence. The rest of England and Wales, however, voted in favour of Brexit.
After three of Theresa May’s Brexit deals were rejected by the UK, she resigned, leaving Brexit to her successor Boris Johnson. As of December 20, 2019, Johnson succeeded in getting his Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) passed in the House of Commons, signaling the end of many years of political infighting regarding the issue. After the WAB becomes law, the withdrawal agreement also needs to be ratified by the European Parliament next month. Then the stage will be set for Brexit on January 31, when the post-Brexit transition period will begin.
For 11 months, the UK will still follow all the EU’s rules and regulations, it will remain in the single market and the Customs Union, and the free movement of people will continue. The government and the EU will work out a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) for a smooth transition. Johnson has made it clear in the WAB that there will be no extension beyond 2020, and if no deal is worked out, then trade will carry on without agreement, meaning that tariffs would be levied on UK goods entering the EU and vice versa.
The WAB implies the following things. Firstly, the UK will have to settle its financial obligations to the EU. Secondly, UK citizens in the EU, and EU citizens in the UK, will retain their residency and social security rights after Brexit. Those residing in an EU country for five years or more can apply for residency in said country. Thirdly, the UK will leave the EU Customs Union, which exempts members from tariffs and levies uniform tariffs on other countries. Leaving the Customs Union means the UK will be able to strike trade deals with other countries in the future—although the exact extent of that freedom will only be revealed in the course of the trade talks with the EU.
Lastly, there is the matter of how Johnson has dealt with the new ‘Irish question’.
Northern Ireland and its land border with the Republic of Ireland has posed a problem for Brexit for many years. Largely due to the ‘backstop’. The backstop was designed to ensure there would be no border posts or barriers between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after Brexit. Such posts would rekindle tensions and also serve as targets for potential insurgents groups.
The new deal solves this problem by shifting these posts to the UK-Northern Ireland border instead. The actual checks will be on what is effectively a customs border between Great Britain and the island of Ireland, with goods being checked at ‘points of entry’ into Northern Ireland. Taxes will only have to be paid on goods being moved from Great Britain to Northern Ireland if those products are considered ‘at risk’ of then being transported into the Republic of Ireland. The deal gives the Northern Ireland Assembly a vote on these new arrangements, but only four years after the end of the transition period, in 2024.
The Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland opposes the WAB for leaving Northern Ireland behind and creating a situation where it must comply with EU customs laws even though it will be a part of the UK’s foreign trade deals. They advocate upholding the “economic and constitutional integrity of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom”.
The integrity of the Kingdom is further rattled by Scotland, which had expressed a 62% desire to remain with the EU in 2016. Although it does not seem economically viable for Scotland to unilaterally remain with the EU, Brexit gave impetus to the Scottish Nationalist Party, for whom all roads lead to Scottish independence. Even though they had voted ‘yes’ to maintaining union with the UK in 2014, the Scottish public opinion is still sharply divided (50:50). The Scottish government has proposed holding a second referendum on Scottish independence.
Brexit is no longer a lulling stream but a whirlpool that is approaching quickly and with near-complete certainty. Although the UK may achieve external sovereignty, the integrity of its union may be deeply affected. On the other hand, a year does not seem nearly enough to undo 46 years of Common Market. Although Johnson is staunch on wrapping up Brexit in 2020, things are bound to overflow. The ‘remain’ votes in 2016 were dominated by the youth. Which leads us to think that by the time deals are made and debts are paid, those who inherit a ‘free’ and ‘independent’ UK, may not want it at all. However, where there is political will there is a way, as can be seen in Boris Johnson’s dogged eagerness. We really are then, at the end of an era.
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