Brexit—End of ‘A Tale of Two Referendums’
The idea of a United Europe dates back to the aftermath of the second world war when it emerged amidst the political tensions between the nations as an antidote to the extreme nationalism that had divided the continent. A number of countries came together to form a European Community with the aim of working together and maintaining peace. The United Kingdom, however, preferred not to join hands in the building of this community in a bid to uphold their sovereignty, something they revered highly.
As the years passed, the economy of UK took a drastic hit and in 1961, when UK’s GDP was 10% less than the Community’s, Britain filed the first application to join the European Community. The application was however rejected as France vetoed to keep the UK out. It was only later in 1973 when the UK again requested membership to the European Economic Community (as it was then called) that it became a member.
Even after joining the Community, political parties in the UK raised concerns about Britain losing its sovereignty and individuality to Europe. The membership finally got sealed after a referendum held to decide the fate of this partnership. That was when the relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union, with the UK being a part of it, officially commenced—marking the beginning of ‘A Tale of Two Referendums.’
Brexit—The British Exit
The European Union is an economic and political partnership involving 28 European countries such that they have a free and common market, flexible trade laws and a common currency, except the UK which deals in Pounds. The EU also has its own legal institutions, a constitution, and regulations which are to be followed by the constituent countries. However, the United Kingdom has always tried to maintain its individuality and has made continuous efforts to keep itself distinct. Many British politicians and organisations have been skeptic of Britain’s EU membership as they fear that the country is gradually losing its sovereignty and powers to the legal and judiciary institutions of EU.
In 2015, the then Prime Minister David Cameron announced a referendum on whether the UK should leave the European Union. Delivering on his election promise, Cameron gave UK citizens the right to decide the fate of the country and scheduled the Brexit Referendum on 23rd July 2016. The vote split the people of Britain into two parts—the Remainers, who believed that the UK should remain with EU, and the Leavers, who wanted the country to exit the Union.
Reasons to Leave
The major arguments raised by the Leavers were about Britain’s sovereignty, economy, and immigration laws.
Being a part of EU makes UK a part of EU’s customs union and the single market which allows a free flow of goods, services, capital and people. UK has no hard borders with the other EU states and is unable to put custom duties to the flow of goods or any checks on the inflow of immigrants. This reduces the control UK has on its borders.
EU also undermines Britain’s legal system. A significant proportion of UK legislation originates from EU legislation. The Union holds legal supremacy i.e. when there is any conflict between a law passed by the UK parliament and an EU institution’s ruling, the latter prevails. Also, the EU regulations can override UK laws on a number of ranging subjects.
Another pressing issue that shaped people’s opinion is the existent immigration laws. The European Union gives its citizens the freedom of movement i.e. the people are entitled to work in other EU state without a work permit, reside there, enjoy rights and get the same treatment as the nationals of that country. The UK being a strong economy has attracted more outsiders, making it the most populated country in Europe with a population density of 704 per square mile. This large inflow of immigrant workers is seen as a threat to the employment opportunities of UK citizens.
The financial contribution of UK in the EU budget has also made people wonder if they are giving more to Europe than what they get in return. Being one of the largest economies in EU, UK not only contributes to a large part of the EU budget but also has multiple commitments to different EU programmes.
The Brexit Referendum
While different politicians and organisations raised these issues to influence the citizens, it was ultimately up to the people of Britain to vote for the future of their nation. The referendum was held on 23rd July 2016 and the citizens of the United Kingdom voted to LEAVE the European Union. 51.9% of the UK population voted for withdrawal while the rest 48.9% voted to remain in EU.
The aftermath of the BREXIT vote was immediate. David Cameron, who confidently campaigned for the REMAIN side, resigned from office and Theresa May took over as the Prime Minister. The United Kingdom invoked the ARTICLE 50 of the Treaty of European Union (enacted by the Treaty of Lisbon) which provides a mechanism for the EU member states to leave the Union.
The 29th of March, 2019 was set as the BREXIT date.
The Withdrawal Deal and what happens if there is no Deal?
For eighteen months, the United Kingdom and the European Union have been in an extensive negotiation to find a solution as to how the things are going to work, once the two are divorced.
The politicians who supported the withdrawal demanded a ‘Hard’ Brexit, that is, Britain should be free from all EU regulations, institutions, and financial commitments. On the other hand, the Remainers advocated for a ‘Soft’ Brexit which meant that Britain should be a part of EU’s customs union or single market and should, therefore, continue with the existent trading system. This would have also kept Britain under the rulings of the European Court of Justice.
Prime Minister Theresa May tried to negotiate a deal which could keep a balance between the two, a deal that was agreed to by both the UK Government and the Union. A Withdrawal Deal has been drafted but May’s solution has found criticism not only from the opposition but also her own party. Many politicians believe that the proposed deal still holds UK under EU’s rules, which is an attack on Britain’s sovereignty. Currently, it is uncertain whether May’s deal would apply post-Brexit or there would be a scenario of no deal.
Either case would have these effects in some major areas of concern:
Although the establishment of hard borders around the UK would facilitate the regulation of inflow of immigrants and goods, it would also mean a hard border between the Northern Ireland (part of UK) and the Republic of Ireland. After years of sectarian conflict, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 had brought peace between the two regions. As of now, the flow of goods and people between the two is so simple that one does not even need a passport to cross the border.
It is highly plausible that Hard borders, accompanied by customs checks and tariffs, no free movement of people, and other administrative procedures, may ignite the conflict once again.
What does the Deal say?
Britain aims to come up with a new trade agreement before the end of the transition period (21 months period, after the BREXIT, when EU rules would continue to apply on the UK). In case an agreement is not reached, the deal proposes a ‘backstop’ which means that after the transition period, UK would move into a ‘single customs territory’ with EU. As a result, there wouldn’t be any tariffs on trade between the two and there would be less administrative restrictions. Apart from this, Northern Ireland will continue to follow few rules of the single market of EU. There wouldn’t be any hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
The backstop has attracted serious criticism as it creates an invisible border between Northern Ireland and rest of UK – since it is only Northern Ireland which will follow rules of the single market.
What if no Deal?
If there is a no Deal Brexit, there would be a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. With this being a highly unwanted scenario, the governments of both UK and Ireland have shown commitment to avoid it at all costs but it still remains to be seen how the problem is solved.
2. Trade & Market, Immigration
Currently, by the virtue of being a member of EU, UK has the access to the Union’s Single Market. Goods that are imported or exported between two EU states do not have any taxes or quotas imposed on them. It allows free movement of people, goods, services, and capital.
Britain is also a part of the Customs Union which allows the movement of goods without tariffs and taxes. Also, a country outside the customs union follows the same trade rules when trading with any of the member states.
What does the Deal say?
In the transition period (till 2020), UK remains a part of both the customs union and the single market. This means that all the rules regarding the movement of goods and people remain the same.
The Government has not yet come to an agreement regarding trade and immigration. However, a political declaration has been released according to which both parties have agreed to Britain’s decision to put an end to the free movement of people and UK is determined to have an independent trade policy, separate market and distinct legal system.
What if no Deal?
No Deal Brexit would make UK revert to WTO rules. Since there would be no trade agreement between the EU and Britain, goods would be subjected to tariffs and administrative procedures. Many goods which were available to the UK citizens at their actual prices would now observe a rise in their prices, due to taxes. In the same way, the goods being exported to EU states will also be subjected to these barriers.
The current budget of the European Union was planned for the period 2014-2020, with the UK making up 13.5% of it. Due to leave in March of 2019, the UK is expected to pay the balance for the remaining of the budget i.e. what it had to till 2020.
What does the deal say?
The ‘Divorce Bill’, a part of the agreement, makes UK liable to pay £39 billion which includes both its share to the budget and the commitments made by UK towards EU projects and programmes. The EU also owes some amount towards Britain and the divorce bill settles all the balances.
What if no Deal?
A no Deal Brexit would free Britain from the liability of paying such a large amount. Britain would just walk away without giving a penny.
4. Rights of Citizens
The citizens of the European Union have the right to travel freely to other EU countries, work as well as settle in those states. They have the right to stand for elections to the European Parliament and contest municipality election of the EU state where they are residing. The people enjoy all the basic rights in whichever Euro nation they are in.
What does the Deal say?
It aims to safeguard the rights of the EU citizens in UK post-Brexit. All the people moving in the UK before the end of the transition period will have the right to live and work there.
What if no Deal?
In the case of no Deal, EU citizens in UK and UK citizens in EU will lose their special rights. They would no longer enjoy the privilege of moving freely. It is still unclear how the rights of the citizens already living in the UK (3.7 million people) and UK citizens in EU (1.3 million people) will change post-Brexit.
The Prime Minister has been firmly fighting for her deal and finds it in the best interest of UK, but has more opposition than support. Majority of parliamentarians have openly criticised the deal. While many members of May’s own party have been vocal about the conflict of opinion, a few members of the cabinet even resigned to show their disagreement.
The deal was presented to EU members and was passed after discussion; but the deal comes into effect only after the House of Commons passes it, which in such a political cyclone seemed highly unlikely. The parliament was to vote on the deal on 11th December 2018 and the result would have made it clear whether it would be May’s deal or no deal. However, May took the third option and postponed the vote indefinitely. She did get more time to discuss the aspects of her deal but the European Union has stepped away from having any further negotiations, leaving the Prime Minister at the eye of the cyclone, helpless. The Conservatives also questioned May’s ability to lead the party and the country but she continued in office after winning the party’s no-confidence vote. As the negotiations take their diplomatic toll and the vote has been delayed indefinitely, it proves that deciding to leave the EU might have been easier than deciding how to leave.
The deal hasn’t been presented yet and with only three months left to Brexit, nothing is explicit and both the EU and the UK are preparing for a No-deal scenario. There is, however, a glimmer of hope as the British Parliament has agreed to discuss the withdrawal deal in January 2019 before voting on it. With the clouds of uncertainty all over Europe, only the time ahead would tell us whether the decision of Brexit was a step towards a brighter sky or a jump into a dark well.