Read our outline of who, what, why, when and what’s next, and you may well know more than Theresa May
Words Greg Taylor
W hen it comes to Brexit, everyone’s a dummy. Since the European Coal and Steel Community, the precursor to the EU, was established in 1951 to help countries do battle with pithy political jibes instead of bombs, no nation has opted to pull the plug, flash the finger, and go home. In fact Article 50, allowing countries to jack in their membership, was only introduced in 2007.
So for the first 56 years it was technically impossible to leave, like a really boring family wedding. Like it or not, the UK is a trailblazer – the first (though maybe not the last) nation to call out its safe word and untangle itself from the myriad economic, bureaucratic and social bonds that make up the world’s largest collective trading bloc.
It’s going to be long, difficult and fascinating process, and this short guide aims to shed a little bit of light on what’s happened and what we might expect.
We’re coming out, we want the world to know, that the EU blows. On June 23rd last year 17.4 million people in the UK voted to leave the EU, signalling the end of a frequently fractious 43 year old union that destroyed prime ministers, divided parties, and helped make Nigel Farage one of our most recognisable ranters. While the referendum wasn’t legally binding and could have been ignored, the people spoke by a margin of 52 – 48% and David Cameron’s commitment to honouring the result, despite his staunchly pro-EU stance, meant there was no going back.
The result led to Cameron’s swift public seppuku, a bloody battle for the Conservative leadership, and the creation of a new government department to manage the Brexit process. Bumps in the road – including a High Court challenge to Government autonomy – are being steamrolled out, and a 130 word law allowing the Government to trigger Article 50 is squeezing through the constipated gut of Parliament to make sure Theresa May can hit her March deadline for our national plunge into the unknown.
Tedious tomes will be written on why the UK decided to check out of the Nobel prize-winning Union, but it’s fair to say we never had an easy partnership with our continental cousins. Charles De Gaulle pointedly rejected our application in 1963, marking us down for an “insular” way of thinking at odds with the collective hive mind the European project aimed for.
Membership to the European Economic Community was finally granted ten years later, and as this body metamorphosed into the far more wide-ranging EU controversies over its over-reaching expansionism, Franco-German dominance, political meddling, open borders and profligate waste ensured it became a continued source of national contention. Boris Johnson rose to prominence as a Brussels-based hack purporting to expose bureaucratic bunglings, while weighty careers have been made and lost smashing against the institution’s seemingly-impregnable walls.
The 2016 referendum allowed the dogs of war, long shackled and ravenous, to be let slip and deliver rabid proclamations about mass immigration, purse-draining financial commitments, industry-crushing regulations, and the ever-reliable straight banana drama. Buses trundled up and down the motorways displaying contentious claims about gobsmacking membership fees, while Bob Geldof got into a verbal brawl with some fishermen on the Thames. It was hardly the stuff of Cicero.
Reductive cries of “racism” and “Little Englanders” do little to expose the genuine ennui and disdain for the European project across the UK (and far beyond), from the pubs of Stoke to the clubs of St James’s. Dodgy accounting, bureaucratic inertia, democratic deficiency, economic misjudgements and pompous preening all played their parts, and helped prove the estimable de Gaulle right long after his death.
Theresa May has taken firm change of Brexit policy, understanding that this is the issue that will dog her to the grave and into the history books. Get it right, she’ll be lauded as a leader of Churchillian ability. Get it wrong, she’ll plunge us into years of economic blight and bring on the collapse of civilisation as we know it.
In her speech on 17th January she finally jettisoned the mise en abyme slogan “Brexit means Brexit” and gave the clearest indication yet of her divorce requirements. In charge of day to day Brexiteering is civil liberties and anti-EU firebrand David Davis, returned from his wilderness years on the back benches, ably supported by legally-minded former Welsh Secretary David Jones. What they really need, though, is negotiators and there isn’t a single person in the world who has any experience doing what the UK is about to do. There’s no template, no guidance, no “for dummies” book, and against us is the full might of the EU’s bureaucratic army led by experienced chief negotiator and French tough guy Michel Barnier. We’ll have to be savvy, patient and exacting if we hope to come out of this well.
Comfortingly for May, the Commons at least has mostly reconciled itself to Brexit – the law allowing Article 50 to be triggered passed by 498 votes to 114. With the Labour Party in now-typical disarray that Tony Blair has emerged from the shadows to try and reassert dominance, and the Lib Dems down to a meagre rump, the 56 Scottish Nationalists are left to fly the flag for remaining, swinging the threat of a Scottish independence around like William Wallace’s caber. The House of Lords threatened to give the Government a beating, but self-preservation makes it unlikely that they’ll do any more than talk a good game. So we’re all on the Brexit train together, waving our Union Jack flags and placards as we hurtle towards a rather rickety-looking new bridge. It’ll all be fine though, right?
Once Article 50 is triggered, expected to be by the end of March, we should have two years to negotiate ourselves out of the European Union. However, there are potential loopholes and extensions, and a great deal of pessimism that an acceptable deal can be reached in such a short time – the UK’s former Ambassador to the EU believes we could be entering into a decade of bad-tempered to-ing and fro-ing before a deal is finalised. This would subsume all domestic politics for years and likely end up the focal point of the next general election which is scheduled for 2020 but could come a lot sooner if May aims to crush Corbyn’s Labour Party and give herself 5 straight years to negotiate with little scrutiny.
And that’s no surprise given there are so many crucial issues on the table. The EU is the UK’s biggest trading partner: with around 44% of our exports going into EU countries and 53% of our imports coming from across La Manche, both sides have a massive stake in keeping our trading relationship sweet. But the EU machine won’t want it to seem too sweet, lest jittery nations like The Netherlands, Italy and even France pile onto their own trains and join us as we fly towards the exit. It’s feasible we’ll see an eye-watering charge for leaving, and could have to continue paying into EU schemes well into the next decade. The simple fact is, we just don’t know down what murky paths our negotiations with take us.
Economists watch nervously as global industry casts its thoughts towards Frankfurt, Paris and Dublin, while EU citizens working in the UK hope to not have to pack their bags imminently. The Government has promised that it will put the final deal to another Parliamentary vote, and that we will walk away with no deal, rather than a “bad” one. Though, as with any divorce, it’s unlikely anyone is going to walk away completely happy.
Who knows? The optimists staunchly believe that the UK will thrive decoupled from the EU’s unwieldy regulations and point to deep economic fissures that could see the whole thing go down the pan in the next few years anyway. The pessimists fear price hikes (cheese, chocolate, Chardonnay!), weak trading deals and the dissolution of the United Kingdom. Likely it’ll be somewhere in between – not too good, but not too bad either. The dire prophecies we heard during the referendum campaign haven’t come to pass, and the UK has a strong economy, bags of talent, and great international relationships.
The one big question continually swirling around Brexit debates is “is it too late, has the die been cast?”. And the simple answer is “no”. Nothing has been done that can’t be undone, and until we’re out we’re still very much in. The momentum is very much in favour of our exiting, but there’s still lots to play for. Whatever side of the debate you fall on, that’s got to be a cause for optimism.
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