Although a Google search indicates the endless, ongoing buzz surrounding Brexit, which has survived longer than voting opinions, exit plans and even the leadership of prime ministers, some Americans may be
unfamiliar with what Brexit actually is.
With Brexit now approaching its third delay in January 2020, the debate between the United Kingdom and the European Union continues to confuse and confound while holding numerous consequences for
immigration, politics and cultural relationships between global economies and countries including United States.
Brexit is the term coined to describe the event of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. The UK, as a sovereign state, is made up of four countries: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
According the BBC, in 1973 the UK joined the European Union (EU), which is “an economic and political union involving 28 European countries. It allows free trade and free movement of people, to live and work in whichever country they choose.”
However, some individuals within the UK do not agree with the rules and regulations under the EU regarding immigration and trade. Billy Stevenson, senior director of international programs at John Brown University, described the situation through the lens of a teenager coming of age. “There are some rules and regulations that I would say the British just don’t like,” Stevenson said. “Maybe, you could see it as getting out from underneath your parents. At the age of 21, or 18 here in America, you are independent and free to make your own decisions.”
Brexit first began under former prime minister David Cameron when a referendum, or a vote on the specific issue, was taken on July 23, 2016. Cameron “campaigned hard in the divisive referendum on Britain’s relationship with the EU, … argu[ing] that Brexit would be an act of ‘economic self-harm,’” according to The Guardian.
With “a refugee crisis ma[king] migration a subject of political rage across Europe and … accusations that the Leave campaign had relied on lies and broken election laws,” the vote shakily split between those who desired to leave the EU and those who wanted to remain, according to The New York Times.
Countries within the UK were split almost evenly, including England being split 47% to remain and 53% to leave and Wales being split 48% to remain and 52% to leave. This divide also emerged along generational lines, with mostly younger generations voting to remain and older voters choosing to leave.
Stevenson, who is from Northern Ireland, said, “My experience has been,
and I spend 23 weeks out of the year in the United Kingdom, that the younger generation is more open to remaining as part of the European Union but addressing the issues of immigration at the same time. In other
words, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater … We don’t need to divorce Europe to address these issues. We can remain and address these issues.”
Following the referendum result of 52% supporting Brexit, Cameron resigned as prime minister in June 1. “I was absolutely clear about my belief that Britain is stronger, safer and better off inside the EU …
But the British people made a different decision to take a different path. As such I think the country requires fresh leadership to take it in this direction,” Cameron said in his resignation speech, according to The Guardian.
In order to fill the position of prime minister, two individuals, Andrea Leadsom and Theresa May, vied for leadership of the Conservative Party. When Leadsom withdrew in July 2016, according to BBC, it left May “as the only candidate to take over leading the party and to therefore become prime minister.”
Theresa May began the process of Brexit in March 2017 by triggering Article 50, a part of the Lisbon Treaty which outlines five steps to leaving the EU in two years, according to the BBC. This set the official
Brexit date at March 29, 2019.
After writing a letter to Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council which presides over the EU, May announced that Brexit was in motion, according to The Guardian. “This is an historic moment from which there can be no turning back. Britain is leaving the European Union,” May said. “We are going to make our own decisions and our own laws. We are going to take control of the things that matter most to us. And we are going to take this opportunity to build a stronger, fairer Britain—a country that our children and grandchildren are proud to call home.”
As Article 50 launched negotiations between the EU and the UK, the talks consisted of two phases: the first settled “the terms of Britain’s exit, and the second the terms of the EU-UK relationship post-Brexit,” according to Deutsche Welle. Turbulence in the first phase negotiations centered around three key issues: “how much Britain still needed to pay into the EU budget after it leaves,” rights of EU and British citizens and the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
This border is one of the key sticking points in the Brexit debate. Acting as the “backstop” portion of Theresa May’s plan, it “was designed to ensure there would be no border posts or barriers between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after Brexit,” according to the BBC.
Stevenson, who is from Northern Ireland, stated implications involving peace, travel and trade for a hard border. “The whole point that they voted for Brexit, was to be in control over the borders,” Stevenson said. “Yet, to put any hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland would set the relationship between those two countries back decades.”
Stevenson, in his concerns, references the Troubles, an ethnic conflict in Northern Ireland between Protestants who wanted to remain as part of the UK and Roman Catholic nationalists who wanted to join the Republic of Ireland. The fighting lasted from 1968 to 1998 and resulted in over 3,000 deaths, ending with the Good Friday agreement in 1999.
“Northern Ireland is in its 21st year of a peace agreement, a ceasefire that has held … When that peace agreement was signed between Northern Ireland and Ireland, the borders were all taken down. The borders
were no longer dangerous spots … [and] no longer hot spots. They were no longer no-man’s land,” Stevenson said. “Today, it’s an invisible border with free movement of people and visitors from both countries. You can walk over the border, drive over the border and not be stopped at all, and that’s a wonderful, wonderful thing. We don’t want to lose that.”
May argued that her plan outlined a way for “the UK and EU to share a ‘common rulebook’ for goods, but not services” and posed “the only credible way to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the
Republic of Ireland,” according to BBC. However, EU leaders disliked the plan and accused May of “cherry-picking,” asserting that the “suggested framework for economic co-operation will not work” because it undermines trade.
In November 2018, “after 524 days of negotiations,” May and the EU “agreed [on] a deal to be put in front of the UK and European parliaments for ratification ahead of Britain’s withdrawal” in March 2019,
according to The Guardian.
The agreement was 585 pages long. The new agreement, according to The Guardian, “safeguards the rights for more than 3 million EU citizens in the UK, and over 1 million UK nationals in EU countries,” requires that the UK pay 39 billion euros “to cover its contribution to the EU budget until 2020,” and holds that the “the whole of the UK will remain in the EU customs union, while Northern Ireland will have to follow single market rules.” Many opponents argue that it will “leave the UK ‘shackled’ to EU rules.”
On January 15, 2019, members of Parliament (MPs) voted 432 to 202, rejecting May’s plan, according to BBC. Many of the opposing votes came from “MPs who want[ed] either a further referendum, a softer
version of the Brexit proposed by Mrs. May, to stop Brexit altogether or to leave without a deal.”
In March, May’s deal suffered two more defeats, despite her attempts to renegotiate terms, with the final vote of 344 to 286 taking place on March 29, the original date of Brexit. Desiring to avoid a no-deal withdrawal, in April the EU and UK agreed to a new date of Oct. 31, according to the BBC.
After offering to enter into talks with the opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn, and increasing the ire from her own party, May announced her resignation on May 24. “It is and will always remain a matter of deep regret to me that I have not been able to deliver Brexit,” May said, according to NPR.
The race for the next prime minister ended with Boris Johnson as the leader of the Conservative party in July, according to BBC. In his acceptance speech, Johnson argued he would “deliver Brexit, unite the
country and defeat Jeremy Corbyn,” even if it meant a no-deal or hard withdrawal.
According to the BBC, “most opposition members of Parliament (MPs) and many from the governing Conservative Party don’t want to leave the EU without a deal. They fear it would damage the British economy, putting up prices and limiting access to the UK’s biggest market.”
Seeking to increase pressure on MPs, Johnson sought to suspend Parliament from Sept. 9 to Oct. 13, leaving only two-and-half weeks before the Oct. 31 Brexit deadline. However, the Supreme Court ruled that such a move was illegal, according to the BBC. Although Johnson argued he was trying to “outline his government’s policies in a Queen’s Speech on 14 October, and to do that, Parliament [had to] be prorogued and a new session started,” he said he would abide by the ruling.
Undeterred in seeking a hard Brexit, Johnson then began pushing to move general elections to the spring. This move sought to “grant Parliament more time to scrutinize his Brexit deal in exchange for an agreement
to hold elections in December,” according to CNN.
Stevenson believes it is a strategic move for the Conservative Party. “[Boris Johnson] is saying to the Liberal party and Jeremy Corbyn, ‘Ok, put your money where your mouth is. If you want an election, I’ll give you an election but only after you hold a yes or no vote on this deal with the European Union.’ All the people that support Corbyn are saying, ‘Do it and we’ll get you elected.’ The chances of him getting elected, because they’re just not in a good spot, is very, very dim.”
After four bids, the election date was finally set at Dec. 12, in what the Guardian describes will be “the most unpredictable in a generation.” They report that the “Conservatives will campaign to get Brexit done by pushing through Johnson’s deal, while Labour is promising a second referendum to let the people resolve the EU question.”
During this time, Johnson was forced give up his pursuit of a no-deal withdrawal by Oct. 31 and request an extension from the EU, moving Brexit to the current deadline of Jan. 31.
Despite many delays and extensions, Michael Francis, assistant professor of biblical studies, suspects that Brexit will happen. However, Francis, who is from Wales, also believes that another vote would show a change in majority opinion. “It would be even money if the primary opposition party in the UK were strong. But, at least in my opinion, the Labour Party at present is weak and poorly led,” Francis said. “One of the reasons Brexit has become so controversial for many people in the UK is that they see the Brexit promised in the original referendum as a chimera, and, arguably, it was always known to be such by its sponsors. There is a good chance a second referendum, this time with a better, though still preliminary,
understanding of what Brexit involves, would produce a different result.”
This change in opinion is rooted in what many have experienced during the uncertainty of Brexit, through impacts on trade and employment. “Business, whether corporate or small business, has been in this state of uncertainty which leads them to hold back on their decisions because they don’t know if they are going to be in Europe or out of Europe,” Stevenson said. “That’s such a big difference in how you conduct business. Are you going to be dealing with free trade or no trade?” However, Stevenson believes that business will be able to adjust to any new decisions on Brexit.
Stevenson, in describing the potential global impact of Brexit, said, “The European economies and the UK economies are not small, insignificant economies. These are large economies. There will be a rippling
effect around the world, particularly to the United States and Japan, who are big trading partners.”
While JBU students may witness fluctuations in currency rates, many will not experience a major economic impact if Brexit is accomplished. Even students studying in Northern Ireland should be relatively unimpacted, Stevenson believes. “It could possibly mean that the students are stopped leaving Ireland and entering Northern Ireland, if there was a hard border, which again is unlikely,” Stevenson said.
With three prime ministers, two extensions, and over three years of division and debate, Brexit continues to remain on the horizon, which has only served to cement Francis’ stance. “To be honest, I have been rather embarrassed by the whole process,” Francis said. “The European leaders have shown remarkable patience and maturity in their dealings with the UK over Brexit, and events to this point have only strengthened my desire for the UK to remain in the EU.”