Have you heard about this whole Brexit thing? It’s been quite a handful. As Americans, keeping up with Brexit can be confusing, especially with all the acronyms and political tensions.
Condensing three years of geopolitical controversy into a single explanation is no easy feat—so pour yourself a cup of tea and buckle up.
The four countries of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland comprise the larger nation of the United Kingdom (UK). Each individual country has its own government but is subject to the higher authority of the UK Parliament.
The UK's arrangement is similar to the United States federal government’s oversight of the 50 independent states.
The UK is also a member of the European Union (EU), which is a broader international agreement between 28 European countries.
For comparison, this is similar to the United States entering into a trade agreement with neighboring countries Canada and Mexico. However, the EU is far more extensive.
EU member countries function within the European Single Market, meaning they can freely trade with zero taxes, tariffs or quotas. Additionally, citizens of EU member countries are free to move between borders without restrictions.
Imagine living in France and commuting into Germany for work every day. In regards to trade, think of fresh tulips being exported from the Netherlands to the UK without the truck driver stopping for any border inspections.
The EU is a powerful international coalition that keeps its member countries closely intertwined.
So What is Brexit?
Around the early 2000s, a few UK conservatives became increasingly vocal about tighter immigration policy and a stronger emphasis on domestic economics.
This momentum mirrored (and was perhaps even influenced by) the right-wing surge seen in the United States during the 2016 presidential election.
Some British conservatives, such as Nigel Farage, went so far as to question the necessity of the UK’s membership in the EU at the UKIP's spring conference.
“We seek an amicable divorce from the European Union and its replacement with a genuine free-trade agreement,” said Farage. “When people stand up and talk about the great success that the EU has been, I'm not sure anybody saying it really believes it themselves anymore.”
As this fringe nationalist movement gained traction, mainline conservatives began to entertain the idea of a “British Exit” from the EU (hence, Brexit).
Even as a conservative himself, Prime Minister (PM) David Cameron was quick to voice dissent to the extremists in his own party. However, as the country’s executive leader, he planned a simple referendum for voters to decide.
Expecting an overwhelming vote to remain in the EU, Cameron hoped it would pacify conservative outliers, reunite his Conservative Party and settle the issue once and for all.
Imagine Cameron's shock and horror on June 23, 2016 when 51.9 percent of UK voters chose to leave the EU. Following the vote, Cameron immediately resigned his position as PM, as reported by NPR.
“I was absolutely clear about my belief that Britain is stronger, safer and better off inside the European Union…but the British people have made a very clear decision to take a different path,” Cameron stated. “And as such, I think the country requires fresh leadership to take it in this direction.”
Shortly after, conservative leader Theresa May became the new PM. Branded by many as a populist, May’s chief goal has been to uphold the democratic process and maintain the people’s trust of their government.
In May's eyes, the people voted for Brexit, and that is exactly what must happen.
After many months of opposition leaders’ failed attempts to call for a second referendum, May finally invoked Article 50 on March 29, 2017.
This clause within the European Union treaty lays out guidelines for leaving the EU, although it has never actually been used before. Before officially leaving, Article 50 allows a two-year period for the UK to negotiate “the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the [European] Union.”
The purpose of this period is for the UK to establish new laws, set up new trade agreements and allow time for citizens and businesses to adjust.
There are a lot of details to sort out. Some conservatives want a “hard Brexit,” meaning the UK would be to the EU as, for instance, Brazil is to the EU—just another separate country.
Moderates advocate for a “soft Brexit” allowing the UK to retain membership in subgroups such as the European Single Market. This could be modeled after countries such as Norway, which participates in the EU’s free trade agreement yet lacks official membership or any real representation in the EU Council.
Another point of conflict is the Northern Irish border. The entirety of Ireland was once a unified part of the UK, but Irish Catholics sought independence from Protestants by forming the Republic of Ireland in the early 1900s.
The result is a 310-mile border between two distinct countries — Northern Ireland (still part of the UK) and The Republic of Ireland (an independent nation).
Trade and immigration have remained simple since both countries are members of the EU. But once the UK leaves the EU and brings its territory of Northern Ireland with it, a border must be reestablished against the Republic of Ireland.
The intricacy of this arrangement leaves lawmakers with a tough choice. Pro-Brexit conservatives want a strong border to tighten immigration, which remains a core tenet of why they voted for Brexit in the first place.
However, critics are quick to point out that a restrictive border in this region would almost certainly inflame its long-standing history of religious violence.
And unfortunately, as if there was not already plenty to argue over, these trade agreements and border procedures are just the tip of the iceberg.
The UK and EU still have to make arrangements for international banking, military presence, legal jurisdiction, environmental regulations, protocol for using international airports, citizenship status for UK citizens living abroad in the EU and countless other nuances.
In summary, Prime Minister Theresa May was given just two years to develop a completely unprecedented and comprehensive deal, negotiate its terms with the EU Council (who isn’t exactly thrilled about divorcing the UK), get it approved by the UK Parliament (who is having second thoughts about leaving) and somehow prevent her country from falling apart in the process. Sounds easy, right?
Diplomacy is Tough
Fast-forward two years. There has been no shortage of infighting and partisan bickering, yet an alarming lack of concrete resolution.
May is still caught in the middle, trying to unite her UK government around a deal while appeasing the demands of the EU. One of May's proposals, known as the Chequers Deal, was met with heavy criticism.
Boris Johnson, a prominent conservative, stated the deal would “have wrapped a suicide vest around the British constitution.”
May scrapped the Chequers Deal and began working on a new proposal, simply referred to as May’s Deal. While it made headway with the EU, May’s Deal was brutally defeated by the UK Parliament this past January in a record 432 to 202 vote.
Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn responded by proposing a motion of no confidence. Essentially the UK’s equivalent of an instant impeachment trial, May could have easily been ousted by a single parliamentary vote.
To the prime minister's relief, the vote remained in her favor, allowing continued negotiations as she keeps pushing for her deal to be approved. May has spent the past few months amending, iterating and tweaking—only to be repeatedly rejected by both the EU Council and the UK Parliament.
The Looming Deadline
The two-year deadline established by Article 50 is merely a few days away. On March 29, the UK would automatically leave the EU, regardless of whether or not a deal is in place.
A so-called “no deal” Brexit would be nothing short of disastrous, weakening both domestic and global economies.
A study by Oxford Economics estimates that leaving without a deal could cost the UK upwards of £125 billion in economic turmoil by 2020.
But with no clear resolution in sight, May addressed the nation last Thursday evening.
“It is high time we made a decision,” May stated.
Adamant about finishing what was started, she is refusing to call a second referendum or to revoke her invocation of Article 50. At this point, many believe her strategy is to simply run out the clock until members of Parliament see her proposal as the only alternative to a no-deal disaster.
In that same speech, May also announced a temporary extension granted by the EU. However, its length is contingent upon first getting a deal passed.
Parliament will vote yet again on May’s Deal, and if it passes, the UK will leave on May 22. If it is rejected, the March 29 deadline will only be pushed back to April 12, likely still resulting in a no-deal Brexit.
The EU’s intent with this short-term extension is not necessary to negotiate a new deal with the UK, but rather to get May’s Deal approved and iron out any last-minute details.
The Final Stand
Whether May’s Deal will pass stands to be determined by this week’s vote. Like a college student throwing together a research paper the night before it is due, Parliament must act swiftly and decisively.
As reported by the Independent, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel accurately summed up the situation surrounding Brexit.
“Those who think in Britain they can push the Brexit button and not have a bill to pay are seriously mistaken,” said Michel.