This is not a political blog, and I do not intend it to become one, so this will not address the rights and wrongs of Brexit, nor my personal opinions. Instead, it focuses on answering the questions I hear a lot, especially from my fellow Americans.
First, some background. The UK (the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) joined the European Communities (the EC) on 1st of January 1973. The European Communities were three different communities that were all governed by the same set of institutions. From 1st of January 1973 until 31st of January 2020, the UK remained a member of the European Communities. The European Communities were renamed the European Union (EU) when the Maastricht Treaty entered into force on 1 November 1993.
The European Union is a complicated supra-national organization that can be compared in some ways with the United States of America. For example, it has:
- A capital city;
- A flag;
- Member states;
- A national anthem;
- A single air-traffic management system (equivalent to the FAA)
- An internet domain (.eu)
- A currency; and
- A parliament
But in other ways the EU cannot be compared to any other organization, for example:
- It doesn’t consider itself a nation state;
- Not all member states use the currency;
- Each member state has its own military; and
- Each member state considers itself a country.
Why a referendum?
The UK has had an awkward relationship with the European Union (EU), despite being a member, and despite being one of the so-called ‘big countries’. Parts of the UK media are openly hostile to the European Union with newspapers such as the Daily Mail regularly featuring untrue articles about the EU (and sometimes truthful ones).
The Conservative (center-right) and Labour (center-left) parties have historically had internal divisions on whether the UK should be a member of the European Union. These divisions have caused problems for Prime Ministers of both parties, when trying to corral their party’s representatives (MPs) to vote in a particular way.
In 2004 a political party in the UK named the UK Independence Party (or UKIP) started to gain vote-share in European Parliament elections. In 2004, UKIP came third in the UK, receiving just over 16% of the vote. In 2009, UKIP came second in the UK, receiving 16.5% of the vote. In 2014, UKIP came first in the UK, receiving 27.5% of the vote. This was the first time a national election had been won by a party other than Labour, the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats in 108 years.
These votes were limited to the European Parliament, and UKIP remained unable to achieve electoral success in the British Parliament until 2015 when it suddenly managed to come third in terms of votes cast (12.6%), and won their first ever MP.
The likelihood of UKIP starting to win seats and effecting British election results was obvious to David Cameron, the Conservative Prime Minister since 2010. For this reason, in his bid to be elected in the 2015 election, in January 2013 he promised a referendum on European Union membership, expecting to win that referendum, and put the question of the EU “to bed”.
On the 23rd of June 2016, the UK population voted by 52% to leave the European Union. This was met with disbelief by so-called “Remainers” and with joy by so-called “Leavers”. People who were not sure one-way or another were, arguably, polarized by the reactions of both groups.
The Lisbon Treaty, which is the most recent treaty on the European Union, and which disposed of a lot of unnecessary complication in the EU’s structure, included a provision in Article 50 (included at the end of this post).
The article provides for a period of two years for negotiations to complete. For this reason the UK did not submit Article 50 immediately, to give the government time to work out what the UK’s negotiation goals would be. Because David Cameron, the Prime Minister of the UK had staked his reputation on winning the referendum for the Remain camp, he resigned on 24 June 2016. He was replaced by Theresa May as Britain’s second female Prime Minister.
On 29 March 2017, Theresa May invoked Article 50. This meant that the UK would leave the EU no later than 29 March 2019. Spoiler Alert: This is not what happened.
In 2017, Theresa May held a British Parliament election in the hopes of gaining a larger majority. This majority, she believed, would help the UK negotiate withdrawal with the EU, with a strong hand. Rather than win a majority, however, while increasing vote share, she reduced the number of representatives she had for her party. This meant she needed to share power with another party in order to govern.
The party with whom she shared power was based in Northern Ireland – the only part of the UK which has a land border with the rest of the EU. The history of Northern Ireland is beyond complicated, but a long-running armed conflict between pro-British groups and pro-Irish groups had only come to an end with an agreement about there being no border between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (not part of the UK).
Power sharing with a party with such deeply vested interests, seriously weakened Theresa May’s negotiating position. A few rebels in her own party were also able to ensure that only with support from the opposition parties, could some votes be passed.
Having negotiated an agreement with the EU, she asked the British parliament to ratify it, which they refused to do, repeatedly.
On the the 7th of June 2019, Theresa May resigned. Boris Johnson became Prime Minister on the 24th of July 2019. In September, a Conservative MP left the party, leaving Boris Johnson without a majority and so, on the 9th of December, following a long fight with the British Parliament, an election was held, which Boris Johnson won with a large majority.
This majority finally allowed Boris Johnson to push through the Withdrawal Agreement he had made with the EU, and the UK was finally scheduled to leave on the 31st of January 2020. British-exit, or Brexit, was more than an idea, it was going to happen.
Leaving the EU is not the end of the story, however. The Withdrawal Agreement, negotiated by Boris Johnson runs until the 31st of December 2020. If a new long-term agreement is not in place by then, the UK will not be able to trade ‘seamlessly’ with the EU, and will have to trade in a manner similar to countries which do not have free trade agreements – customs, tariffs etc.
Before Brexit, the UK was not allowed to sign trade deals with countries with whom the EU does not already have agreements.
As of the 6th of January 2020, the UK had signed 20 trade deals with countries with whom the EU had already signed trade deals (source). After Brexit, the UK will be able to negotiate ‘proper’ trade deals with other countries, such as the USA, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.
The text of Article 50
Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.
A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention. In the light of the guidelines provided by the European Council, the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union. That agreement shall be negotiated in accordance with Article 218(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. It shall be concluded on behalf of the Union by the Council [of the European Union], acting by a qualified majority, after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament.
The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.
For the purposes of paragraphs 2 and 3, the member of the European Council or of the Council representing the withdrawing Member State shall not participate in the discussions of the European Council or Council or in decisions concerning it.A qualified majority shall be defined in accordance with Article 238(3)(b) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.
If a State which has withdrawn from the Union asks to rejoin, its request shall be subject to the procedure referred to in Article 49.https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=OJ:C:2007:306:TOC