This article is written by Raadhika Tandon.
If you’ve turned on the international news any time in the last two years, you have undoubtedly heard something about Brexit, the colloquial term given to the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union. This withdrawal, however, has been in progress for more than 28 months; so, what exactly is this process and why is it taking so long?
This process of Brexit began on the 23rd of June in 2016 when the UK held a referendum asking its citizens if they should leave or remain in the European Union. By a slim margin of 52% to 48%, leave won. This triggered Article 50, a five-step process that must be followed in the event that a country wishes to leave the EU. The British Prime Minister at the time, Theresa May, formally began the proceedings to leave, agreeing upon a scheduled date of March 29th, 2019 for the UK’s departure.
After two years of negotiation, Theresa May and the EU came to their withdrawal agreement; the next step was to get Parliament’s vote, upon which the departure would become finalised. What should have been a relatively simple vote, given that the Conservative and Unionist party of the UK – informally known as the Tories – held the majority in Parliament, was made complicated after PM May’s bill was rejected three times. The biggest point of contention in the original withdrawal agreement was and remains the Irish Backstop. Currently, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is soft; there are relatively few regulations in place and moving in between the two regions is a straightforward process. Even though the Republic and Northern Ireland are separate countries, their membership in the EU customs union and single market means products and people moving across the border don’t need additional inspection. With Brexit, however, Northern Ireland would leave the customs union and anything moving across the Irish border would need to be inspected on both sides.
As it stands, there are two options with the backstop. It would either keep a soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, while the rest of the UK would have a hard border with the UK. This idea has widely come under criticism, however, as it goes against the idea of a united kingdom, by applying different standards to Northern Ireland. The second backstop option is to keep the entire UK in the EU customs union and single market indefinitely, allowing goods to continue passing between Northern Ireland and the Republic without additional checks.
This backstop is so contentious that after her agreement being rejected thrice, Theresa May reigned as the Prime Minister of Britain and a new leader for the Tories had to be chosen. I had the privilege of living in the UK this past summer and so I was able to witness this process first hand; in the end, the Conservatives chose Boris Johnson as their new leader.
With Boris Johnson in power, the debate began to center around a “No-Deal Brexit”, the platform he ran on. This would essentially see the UK ripped from the EU at the end of October, regardless of whether there is an agreement in place for the departure. This would leave UK citizens in the EU and vice-versa in a state of limbo, severely affect businesses who deal between the two regions, and immediately remove the UK from any pre-existing trade agreements that involved EU membership. On October 19th, PM Johnson placed his revised agreement up for vote in Parliament; the members of parliament, though generally in support of the bill, voted against the rushed timetable the PM wanted. As the withdrawal deadline approaches rapidly, Johnson has been forced to ask the EU for one more Brexit extension; as a condition to doing so, however, he has voiced his desire to call a general election in December, intended to give him a larger majority in Parliament.
As this process drags on years after the initial referendum, an important question continues to linger – will the UK ever leave the EU? With power changes, repeated agreement rejections and several defections of MPs to different parties, opinions remain mixed. A widespread movement asking for a second referendum persists, pointing to the fact that in the past three years, the voting age population has grown. The fight against a no-deal Brexit is quite strong and it seems unlikely that PM Johnson will get his way. Another important point to address is the general election; Johnson has tried to call for one twice now, failing both times. Even if he gets his wish for a December election, there is no guarantee his party will maintain power; when Theresa May called a snap election in 2017, she maintained power by a slim majority, and her party lost seats in Parliament. As the EU prepares to grant the UK another three-month Brexit extension, it is important to keep an eye on Boris Johnson and how he proceeds with the ever-complicated tangle of withdrawal. With an increasing number of young voters backing Labour, a potential shift in party power could be on the horizon, the effects of which are impossible to predict on an issue as complex and unprecedented as Brexit.