Brexit: An American’s Perspective

Brexit Image by Marco Verch

An Editorial

Today is the first day that the United Kingdom is an independent nation outside the European Union. Brexit, the term coined to represent the UK’s secession from the EU, took effect last night at 11 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time. This comes three and a half years since the 2016 referendum we covered here on Cat Flag, where British voters chose to leave the EU. Few could have predicted just what a drawn-out mess this process would be. A process that was supposed to take two years would instead keep getting extended and extended, involve two bitter and acrimonious elections, an initial deal that was so thoroughly rejected that a new Prime Minister would have to draw up a new one from scratch, one of the most dramatic and tempestuous moments in the history of the British Parliament as MP’s came to near-blows, and even a case that had to be ruled on by the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.

After all of that drama, the final withdrawal itself was quite anticlimactic: a 42-second ceremony where two staffers took the Union Jack down from the European Council building.

So, what happened here? As an American who has never been to the UK, I can only speak to what all of this looks like from the viewpoint of a complete outsider. However, sometimes getting an outsider’s perspective can be useful, as when you are in the thick of something so dramatic, one can sometimes fail to see the forest for the trees. So, here’s my perspective on Brexit.

Disconnection

David Cameron official portrait from HM Government

After World War II, there was an idea to link the economies of France, Germany, and other European nations together so completely that a third major continental war would be materially impossible. This led to the creation of several free-trade treaties, that over time evolved into a broader free-trade area across much of Europe. In the 1970’s, as the once-mighty British Empire disintegrated, the UK joined what was known at the time as the “Common Market” in a move that was seen as a way to bolster an economy that was really feeling the impact of decolonization.

Gradually, however, this free-trade area began to evolve into something else. Within Europe’s political, business, and academic circles, the idea emerged that the nations of Europe would be stronger and better off if they integrated more closely and became a proper federation, a sort of “United States of Europe”. This would be good for big corporations, as it meant consistent and predictable laws and regulations that made it easier to do business across the continent. It was also argued that a Europe that spoke with one voice would be stronger and more able to compete with superpowers like the USA, Russia, and China. To this end, the “Common Market” evolved into the European Union, a unique political entity that is technically an international organization but in many ways functions like a national government.

Not everyone was on board with this plan, though. All across Europe, so-called “Euroskeptics” have argued against this push for a federal Europe, either because they don’t want to lose their own national identity, they don’t like or trust the EU’s policies and don’t want to see it gain more power, or they simply don’t see how these plans benefit them. In the UK, separated by the English Channel from the rest of the continent, Euroskepticism was so strong that they refused to join some of these integration projects, such as the Euro. To many British voters, particularly working-class voters, they had been the victim of a bait-and-switch, thinking they were signing on to a trade agreement and instead getting their sovereignty taken away.

Still, the EU has its supporters among the British public, particularly among big businesses and well-educated white-collar workers who see the benefits of being able to trade, travel, and move freely across Europe. Yet Britain couldn’t ignore the Euroskeptics, as they were well-organized and very vocal. The UK Independence Party was formed to campaign for a British withdrawal from the EU, and it was drawing away voters from the Conservative Party. To Prime Minister David Cameron, a Conservative, this was a problem. So, he made a promise: he would hold a referendum on British membership in the EU. He personally supported staying in the EU, of course, but he said he would let the people have a say anyway. At the time, everyone expected this to be a mere formality; the British public would see the benefits of EU membership outweighing the drawbacks, vote to remain within the EU by a wide margin, and drop the issue for the foreseeable future.

That’s not what happened.

See, there was a huge disconnect between the UK’s political leadership, who thought the benefits of EU membership were obvious, and the working-class voters who saw it as a project of uncaring elites who didn’t listen to their concerns. I commented about this at the time. The result was so shocking that not only did Cameron immediately resign, so did the leaders of the pro-Brexit faction, as they didn’t expect to win and had no idea how to make Brexit a reality.

This was the first mistake.

Mistakes were made

Broken glass image by Tiago Padua

Whoops!

Those Vote Leave leaders who were campaigning for Brexit, even if they didn’t expect to win, should have had a plan. They should have stepped up when the results came in and said, “Yes, we will deliver what we promised to the British voters.” Instead, the task of actually getting the UK out fell to Theresa May, who had been an outspoken opponent of Brexit. Because that makes sense.

Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union allows EU member states to withdraw after negotiating an exit agreement with the remaining members or, barring that, automatically once two years have passed after triggering the secession process, unless everyone agrees to extend the deadline. The reason for this is that the EU has many nations around its periphery that have some sort of special agreement for cooperation on trade, travel, justice, and human rights. Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein are part of a customs union that allows free trade and travel with the EU, but this forces them to be bound by EU law in many policy areas, and as non-EU members they have no say in those laws. Countries like the Ukraine and Turkey, that seek to join the EU in the future, have special free-trade agreements that help prepare them for entry, but they have to agree to “harmonize” their laws with the EU. The EU negotiators wanted to slot the UK into one of these existing relationship categories, but all of them had some sort of deal-breaker for British negotiators, such as forcing the UK to continue allowing uncontrolled immigration from the EU or to accept the jurisdiction of EU courts.

At the same time, while the majority of British voters clearly wanted to leave the EU, the majority of British businesses clearly didn’t, and wanted to somehow preserve their access to EU free trade. At the same time, there were concerns about how all of this would affect Northern Ireland, that part of the island of Ireland that is still part of the United Kingdom but is claimed by the Republic of Ireland and spent much of the latter half of the 20th century suffering from sectarian violence over this issue. The Good Friday Agreement that ended the violence had the end of a hard border between the UK and Ireland as one of its stipulations, but without a special Brexit deal with the EU, such a hard border would have to be reinstated. Some feared that this would lead to sectarian violence returning to Northern Ireland, something that all parties agreed would be bad.

May’s government laid all of these concerns out in a document issued in February 2017 as a rough guide to their plan for the Brexit negotiations. In April, seeking to strengthen her hand by securing public support for her position from the voters, she called an early election. The result of that election was that her party actually lost seats in Parliament, giving her the literal opposite of a stronger hand. Now, she would have to negotiate with the EU with a hand tied behind her back, with no guarantee that Parliament would approve any deal she reached.

So, let’s talk about her deal, shall we? By 2018, May had a plan for Brexit: the UK would try to stay inside the EU’s free-trade area and stick to EU rules and regulations (remember, as a non-EU member, they would have no say in these rules). Several ministers in May’s government straight-up resigned after hearing this proposal. Undeterred, she brought this proposal to the EU, with the two sides adding a “backstop” plan for Northern Ireland that would basically leave it in the EU in all but name until the two sides sorted out how to handle the UK-Irish border.

This plan basically did little more than the bare minimum needed for May to say she “delivered Brexit” without actually changing anything, while still technically not even “delivering Brexit” for Northern Ireland at all. Not only was this rejected by Parliament, it was the worst defeat by Parliament of a Prime Minister’s bill in British history. Now, most people would have seen such a staggering defeat and thought, “Man, I really messed up. I should probably go back to the drawing board and try something else.” Instead, she brought her exact same deal before Parliament again, and was unsurprisingly defeated again.

Now, at this point in the process, that Article 50 two-year deadline was approaching. May knew this, and was using it as a tactic to force everyone to comply. News stories like this one warned about the supposedly horrific consequences of a Brexit without a deal, and she hoped that fear would get Parliament to back down and give her what she wanted. But the MP’s saw right through her plan, and instead voted to reject a no-deal Brexit under any circumstances, forcing her to beg the EU for more time. This would soon become a recurring pattern, as the Brexit deadline was extended again and again.

Credit where credit is due, May was persistent. She tried to put her deal before Parliament for a third time. This time, however, John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, denied her, saying long-standing Parliamentary precedent has held that one can’t keep bringing the same bill to Parliament again and again as it is a waste of Parliament’s time. To force the issue, May made some minor edits so that it would technically be a different bill. It still didn’t pass. Only now, belatedly, did she resign.

Starting over

Restart image by Anders Sandberg

The problem with May’s premiership is pretty clear. She had a particular vision of what she wanted a post-Brexit UK to look like, and was determined to make that vision come true in spite of every glaring evidence from all directions that nobody in the UK wanted it. Those who opposed Brexit wanted to somehow stop it, either with a second referendum or just straight-up ignoring the referendum results, since it technically was a non-binding vote anyway. Those who supported Brexit saw May’s plan as tantamount to a non-Brexit “Brexit”, giving in to the demands of the other EU leaders and to big business while making the UK, in Boris Johnson’s words, “an EU colony”.

Speaking of Boris Johnson, he was the one who managed to take over as Prime Minister after May. A Brexit hardliner from day one, he was disgusted by the years of pointless political wrangling and promised to get the job done. However, he was like May in one regard: he wanted to leave a no-deal Brexit on the table. By the time he took office, another deadline was looming, and Parliament wanted to ask for yet another extension.

This is where things get even more complicated, and now I have to talk about the British constitution. For generations, there has been an understanding between Parliament and the reigning monarch that he or she can only suspend Parliament “on the advice of the Prime Minister”. This is normally done for a few reasons, and one is to allow an incoming government to get its affairs in order. These sorts of traditions are recognized as being part of the UK’s “unwritten constitution”, they are just sort of how things are done.

When Johnson went to ask the Queen to suspend Parliament, however, many saw that he was suspending it for a very long time, and doing so startlingly close to the Brexit deadline. Many put two and two together and suspected he was deliberately trying to weasel out of having Parliament scrutinize his negotiations with the EU. The British supreme court agreed, and ruled his actions unconstitutional, something that is very rarely done in British law as, again, its constitution isn’t a written document like the one in the United States.

So, Parliament forced Johnson to ask for one last Brexit extension, and Johnson, seeing how this Parliament had treated May and now himself, called an early election to allow the voters to decide what direction Brexit should take. When the vote came in, his party won one of the largest landslide victories in decades. The British public clearly was on Johnson’s side and wanted Brexit done.

Get it done, Johnson did, as the final withdrawal agreement was, at last, approved by Parliament and the EU. There is still more negotiating to be done, however. Technically, the UK is now in a “transition period” that will nail down the finer details of the relationship with the EU. During this time, the UK will still act as though it is an EU member in terms of travel and trade until December 31 of this year. The Northern Ireland question was resolved with a new plan where instead of keeping it in the EU or putting up a hard border, goods going into and out of Northern Ireland will be checked at the ports, with tariffs charged only on goods destined for Ireland but not on goods that will be staying in Northern Ireland.

Brexit coin image from Deutsche Welle

The British mint is issuing 50p coins with a commemorative design in honor of Brexit

Personally, I think this transition period is something that should have been part of the agreement from the beginning. The big sticking point that was dragging on the negotiations was that May wanted to get both Brexit and a new trade deal done at the same time. I have long felt that these should have been treated as two separate issues, as Brexit is ultimately a political concern and the trade deal an economic one. Brexit was about the British people reclaiming their national sovereignty and independence, something that many felt much more strongly and passionately about than business regulations or tariffs.

Yet I’m not surprised by how dramatic the last four years have been. The EU has a vested interest in “punishing” the UK for leaving. The UK was the second-largest net contributor to the EU budget, and furthermore, the EU has to be worried that after Brexit, other countries might follow suit, threatening the EU’s very existence. At the same time, the Brexit vote was a close one, and many in the UK wanted to stay in the EU. These anti-Brexit voices were going to try to derail the process as much as possible.

Even with these factors in mind, though, it is truly embarrassing that it has taken this long for the choice of the British people to be respected. This has been a lesson in what happens when the elites of a society are so disconnected from the ordinary people that they don’t understand what the people want or need. Hopefully we Americans can learn a thing or two from this.

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