Trying to understand Brexit from thousands of miles away is difficult, but it’s apparently even harder for those living in the country.
A little over two and a half years ago, the UK voted to leave the European Union. But agreeing when and how to leave has been the greatest political challenge that Great Britain has faced since the Second World War. As the deadline to finally step away from the political union approaches, they’re no closer to agreeing on a deal.
So how did they get here?
Why they voted to leave
The UK Government allowed the public to vote on its future relationship with the European Union back in June 2016. The country has been members of the EU since its inception, and are one of the major providers of funding to the trading bloc (although they do receive benefits in kind. The precise value of those benefits has been one of the sticking points of the whole affair). The options on the ballot paper were ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain.’ If you think that sounds simplistic, you’re right, and we’ll come to that in a moment. When the votes were counted, the margin came in at 52% in favor of leaving, and 48% in favor of remaining. The UK had voted clearly – albeit by a small margin – to leave.
If you ask Leave voters, they’ll tell you that they feel that the UK had lost control of its borders and control of immigration along with them, and that they were paying into the EU far more than they were getting out. In among those Leave voters were a proportion of people who just wanted to land a blow on the establishment, who had primarily campaigned to stay in the EU.
If you ask Remain voters why they wanted to stay, they’ll say that the EU does, in fact, give more in return than it takes, that the perceived erosion of power from London to the EU headquarters in Brussels was mostly imaginary. They’ll also say that losing the access that EU members enjoy to the world’s largest trading partnership wasn’t a price that was economically worth paying.
In the end, the reasons are immaterial; Leave won, and the UK is on its way out.
Why are they still there?
The simplicity of that referendum has come back to haunt the government. They know that the majority of the public want to leave the EU, but there was no consultation on the methodology, or on the preferred future relationship with Europe.
The Government had been so complacent about ‘Remain’ winning the vote that they’d done no planning for a ‘Leave’ vote at all. That meant no proposals for a future trade relationship with Europe or the rest of the world, and no idea how to disentangle the country from the economic and political union it had been in for thirty years.
The price of that arrogance is still being paid now.
The difficulties since then have been about the same thing global politics always comes down to; money, trade, and immigration. The EU says that Britain is committed to billions of pounds worth of future spending on projects, and wants it to pay a ‘divorce settlement.’
The UK wants access to the ‘common market’ for trade. The EU says it can only have that as a full member. The UK has been accused of trying to cherry-pick the pieces of EU membership that it likes and cling on to them; the EU has been accused of putting up unreasonable barriers in order to punish Britain.
After two years of negotiations, Prime Minister Theresa May presented the terms of the UK’s Withdrawal Agreement to the British House of Commons for Members of Parliament to vote upon it; and they resoundingly rejected it. That means with the exit date of 29th March 2019 coming ever closer, there’s no agreement as to what happens next.
Why was it rejected?
Prime Minister May achieved something spectacular with her withdrawal agreement; she came up with terms that both sides hated.
Those in favor of completely cutting ties with the European State felt it kept Britain tied too closely to it; those in favor of staying felt it pushed it too far away. Crucially, both sides hated the implications for Ireland.
Ireland is not part of the United Kingdom, but Northern Ireland is. That means that after Brexit, Ireland will be a satellite state; the outermost point of the EU, and the UK’s only land border. Under EU regulations, as the UK will no longer be a member state, a ‘hard border’ with passport checks must be imposed where Ireland meets Northern Ireland.
However, the imposition of such a border would be a violation of the terms of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which brought an end to the IRA’s decades-long campaign of terror against British rule in Northern Ireland. May has stated that she will not accept any agreement that involves a hard border. But without one, the only concession the EU has been able to offer is a ‘backstop’ where the UK is still subject to some EU rules until a more permanent solution can be found. Both sides agree that this runs the risk of them being tied to the EU forever.
Can’t they just walk away?
Yes, they can, and that’s what’s being discussed at the moment. This is the ‘No Deal’ Brexit scenario, in which event the UK has no trade or political agreements with the EU at all. With both sides of the debate accusing the other of lying about the implications of this, it’s hard to know what the consequences would be.
The direst forecasts say that import and export would halt immediately, there would be a food and fuel shortage, flights would be grounded and the economy would plunge into a deep recession. Even the most optimistic concede that there would be a short-term economic impact, even if things recovered later.
For most Brits – or at least most British politicians – ‘no deal’ is not an option. To sum it up as a metaphor, imagine visiting an online slots website and then trying to play the slot games blindfolded. You could still press ‘spin,’ and you still have a chance of winning lines coming in, but you have no idea what you’re getting, or how much, or when. You also can’t see any of the bonus features, and you’re missing out on opportunities.
‘No Deal’ would be like putting the entire budget of the United Kingdom into one slot game, setting it on auto spin and hoping for the best. It could work out fantastically, or it could be a disaster. That’s a gamble no politician seems to have an appetite for.
At this point, anyone who says they can tell you what’s going to happen next is a liar. Nobody knows, and the ride is only going to become wilder as that March deadline approaches. We’re happy watching from a distance; it at least makes for a distraction from the circus going on at home.