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Rule Brittania No More: Brexit at the Drop of a Hat

(Photo: UK Parliament, flickr.com)

Mateo Bianchi

Despite the anticipated looming 29 March 2019 deadline for the UK to enter the 21-month transition period to exit the EU, circumstances now appear more uncertain than ever. Following intense negotiations – and a failure to pass a draft agreement on the UK’s withdrawal on 15 January – support for UK Prime Minister Theresa May and her own conception of a balanced “divorce agreement” with the EU has irrevocably evaporated, following the second UK Parliamentary Brexit vote of 12 March 2019.

Indeed, the odds appear to be against May, with the Labour Coalition and their Liberal Democrats allies favouring a second referendum. Additionally, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) representing Northern Ireland has repeatedly declared that they will not unconditionally back the PM’s proposal, since its provisions place Northern Ireland under a differing set of regulations vis-à-vis the rest of the UK to avoid the emergence of a complex border situation with Ireland.

The DUP accuses May of breaking the promises made to them: that Northern Ireland would be treated just as the rest of the UK. Instead, the current “backstop” deal would tie Northern Ireland to some EU regulations regarding migration and trade. Unionists have called upon Prime Minister May to reconsider a deal they consider “separatist” in nature. The DUP has laid out that it will only support May’s deal if it is amended to allow the UK to withdraw unilaterally, or make the Northern Ireland backstop time-limited – a stance on which the EU is unwilling to compromise.

Context

On 23 June 2016, Britons experienced a once-in-a-generation-change, as 51.9% of participants within the referendum voted in favour of the UKs departure from the European Union. Accordingly, the event drew much international attention, with governments and markets watching in disbelief following the vote.

However shocking, the event was not an aberration, with similar geopolitical events throughout 2016 marking a strong repulsion and departure from the post-Cold War liberalist world order – evidenced by the emergence of right-wing, populist, and isolationist movements. This was reflected in the 2016 US presidential election, the awakening of the far-right all over Europe, and the ascension of far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro as the President of Brazil. Brexit represents one point in a series of domino populist movements internationally, within which adherents seek to reclaim a national identity felt lost to globalisation.

The resignation of UK Prime Minister David Cameron immediately following the 2016 Brexit vote also came unexpected. Declaring that the country required “fresh leadership to take it in this direction”, Cameron took a step back, with Theresa May assuming the role one month later.

In March 2017, the will of little more than half the UK population was executed as May triggered Article 50 of Lisbon Treaty before of the European Council. This act started a 24-month countdown, during which the UK has to perform the herculean task of striking a deal with the EU, which involves settling the £39 billion bill owed to the EU and formalising the political conditions surrounding their exit of the 28-member political and economic union.

On 25 November 2018, the UK and EU agreed to a final draft agreement for Brexit, forming the basis of Theresa May’s Brexit deal which would be presented to the UK parliament and voted upon on 15 January 2019. The 611-page draft agreement consisted of a 585-page “Withdrawal Agreement” and a 26-page “Political Declaration on a Future Framework.”

Nonetheless, a deal must satisfy both EU member States, as well as Labour and Tory politicians within UK parliament. Where the Brexit referendum was a simple affair, little did Britons know of the political carnage to follow.

A House Divided Cannot Stand

Several high-profile ministers from May’s cabinet have resigned from their posts in objection over her Brexit strategy. This has included David Davis (ex-Brexit Secretary), Dominic Raab (ex-Brexit Secretary), and Jo Johnson (Minister of Transport).

This internal crisis has been compounded by the fact that the passage of any Brexit agreement would require 320 of 640 parliamentary seats to vote in favour. Considering how the DUP and the majority of Labour MPs have indicated their indignation over the current iteration of the Brexit deal, and the volume of dissent amongst conservative Tories over May’s deal, there exists a high possibility that a Brexit deal will not pass – forcing the UK to exit the EU with no deal. Pro-Brexit Tory MP and ex-Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab embodied the sentiments of many UK politicians in declaring:

“I’m not going to advocate staying in the EU but if you just presented me terms, this deal or EU membership – we’d effectively be bound by the same rules without a control or voice over them – yes, I think this would be even worse than that”

Most surprisingly, on 15 January 2019 Theresa May suffered the most severe parliamentary defeat sustained by a British PM in the democratic era when 432 MPs voted against 202 MPs to defeat the proposal – including 118 Conservative MPs who voted against her. Despite this outcome, Theresa May managed to retain her leadership the next day following a vote of no-confidence with a narrow margin of 325 votes against to 306 for.

Deal or No Deal

Where UK politicians have voted against the passage of May’s second Brexit proposal, a number of things could happen.

Firstly, a new referendum could be undertaken. Although a controversial and somewhat “anti-democratic” measure, this proposal has been gaining increasing support in the wake of the London Peoples March, during which approximately 700.000 supporters of a second referendum took to the streets. Consequently, many politicians on both sides of the House have expressed their public support for the holding of a second referendum, with former Cabinet Minister and Conservative MP Jo Johnson’s resignation having being accompanied by a statement advocating a second referendum on Brexit.

Conversely, a “hard” Brexit absent of any deal with the EU exists as another option. Many pro-independence politicians and supporters would rather see Brexit through despite the projected £39 billion cost, loss of access to the EU single market, and loss of access to the common customs union. Incidentally, the Venn diagram of those alleging that call a second referendum would be anti-democratic, and those favouring an independent and isolationist Britain, exists as a perfect circle. In effect a hard Brexit would involve the severance of cordial relations with continental Europe, and result in unanticipated effects to areas of the UK system previously integrated with EU law.

Where the second UK parliamentary vote of 12 March 2019 has failed, the option exists for MPs to undertake a stop-gap measure, by voting to delay Brexit until end-June 2019. Further, the option exists for the UK to delay a finalized Brexit by extending its ‘transition period’ past December 2020 and beyond the next general election up to December 2022. The transition period can only be extended once, and must be requested by the UK before 1 June 2020. This route appears to have been assumed following PM May’s letter to the EU on 21 March, which proposed delaying Brexit until 30 June.

Summary

For the moment, much uncertainty persists as to the future of the UK. Will May’s vision for Brexit be fulfilled before the 29 March deadline, will Brexit be delayed until the end of June, or will the UK be left without a Brexit deal? Conversely, could the possibility of a second referendum prove favourable to the Remainers, who argue that UK public opinion has undergone significant change following 2 years of continuous political setbacks?

Nevertheless, the phenomenon of Brexit has already wrought a heavy economic toll on the UK, despite having yet to formally begin. The Bank of England has estimated the cost of Brexit to the economy at £800 million per week or £40 billion per annum – equating to 2% of domestic GDP and a cumulative total of £55 billion since 23 June 2016.

One thing is certain: should the UK continue along its present path of political uncertainty and partisan politics over Brexit, such threatens to fracture the socioeconomic and political stature of the country and irreparably damage Britain’s statute within the international community.

Mateo Bianchi is currently studying a Bachelor in International Relations at UDELAR (Universidad de la República). He has followed the entire Brexit process since its inception and holds a keen interest on the international stage, particularly on European Affairs.