The Brexit process has been dragging for a while now. After many months – even years – of assemblies, meetings and negotiations, the withdrawal process of the United Kingdom from the European Union has not covered nor resolved all of its main disputes. Despite rumours and claims, there are yet many topics to be discussed and, most importantly, agree on. Therefore, the issue today still seems far from over, even if time is running out.
In this messy and very open situation, it might be easy to lose track of events and developments; so, how did we get exactly to where we are today?
Once upon a time
Since the very early beginnings, when in 1973 the United Kingdom joined the three European Communities, the relations between these two parties have always been uncertain and resentful at least. Even though the UK agreed to the creation of the European Single Market, which would allow the free movement of goods, capital, services and labour within Member States, it was immediately clear they were not particularly satisfied with any meddling acts from outsiders in their internal politics. Margaret Thatcher was the face of this British fierce opposition to what were perceived as excessive duties.
After her resignation, these tensions loosened: John Major signed the ’92 Maastricht Agreement creating the European Union, and with the labour governments under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, a new period of more relaxed relations seemed approaching. However, internal anti-European pressures were lurking underneath, and ultimately culminated with the following conservative government.
In order to make Brussels counterparts more flexible, adaptable and yielding, the then PM David Cameron announced a popular referendum on the British permanence within the European Union. This choice was a pure demonstrative act and not a true attainable political objective, nor even a threat, as he remarked. Nevertheless, the referendum had a huge impact and polarised British society into two separate and opposite groups: on one side, the Remain alliance for the permanence in the EU, made of by the Labour, the Lib Dems, the Green Party of England and Wales, the Scottish National Party and half of the Tories (among which Cameron himself); on the other side, the Leave front, with the other half of the Conservative party led by Boris Johnson and the UK Independence Party of Nigel Farage.
Said referendum took place on June 23rd 2016 and saw the slight yet unexpected win of the Leave over the Remain. Again, the referendum was purely consultive and not legally binding; nonetheless, the then government decided to follow up the popular opinion and tried to turn it into effective political agenda.
The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom stated afterwards that, in order to proceed and apply Article 50 (the one concerning exit procedures for Member States willing to withdraw from the EU), the British Parliament alone must be consulted, without intromissions by any of the four national assemblies. The Parliament was consulted indeed and the formal notification of the Article 50 exit procedure was successful, starting the official Brexit process in 2017, on March 29th.
The start of Brexit negotiations
The beginning of these negotiations saw new conservative PM Theresa May informing the President of the European Council Donald Tusk about the British government’s intention to abandon both the customs union and the European Single Market, to withdraw from the European Communities joined in 1973 and to adapt EU laws into UK laws (and not the other way around). The date for said withdrawal was set on March 29th 2019, two years after the presentation of the notification as required by Article 50.
Right after receiving the notification letter, the European Parliament agreed to negotiate the withdrawal procedures, and on June 19th 2017, British Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union Davis Davis joined in Brussels Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier and started discussing together a withdrawal agreement, involving a transitional period and the future of the relations between UK and EU. From the very beginning, there was utmost concern about the many different outcomes and prospects of this controversial situation.
But what seemed to be a rapidly-evolving an unstoppable process turned out to be much slower than expected due to many factors, including anticipated British elections. Finally, in November 2018, the binding withdrawal agreement and the non-binding Declaration on Future Relations were stipulated and presented to the British Parliament in the following months; however, the British Parliament was internally divided and eventually rejected to ratify them on three different occasions during the first months of 2019. While the Labour wanted to remain a part of the customs union, the Tories refused its financial obligations towards the EU. Three years later, the same ideological polarisation within Britain was still untouched.
Brexit today: new leaders, old issues and potential outcomes
A new deadline was then set – and still is today – for October 31st 2019. Having failed to deliver Brexit as promised, May resigned as leader of the Tories and has been succeeded by Boris Johnson during the summer of 2019. Loyal to his stoical position throughout the whole Brexit process, Johnson is now determined to finally leave the EU on the newest deadline, with or without an agreement.
This no-deal outcome also involves the rejection by the EU to abrogate the Northern Ireland Protocol (or “Irish Backstop”) as requested by Johnson in order to re-open negotiations. The EU wants to maintain a soft border between Republic of Ireland (EU) and Northern Ireland (potential non-EU), two countries historically marked by bloody fights now striving for peace; according to Johnson instead, this soft border potentially undermines the effectiveness of Brexit itself.
According to many experts, Brexit – and especially its the no-deal outcome – would significantly jeopardise the internal British economy as well as the London status quo on a global scale, entering into an unprecedented recession; this theory is widespread among the Remain (whose campaign has always supported an economical and technical basis, rather than an emotional one), who are willing to drag the debate further in the hope of a profitable future agreement.
Whether or not Johnson is aware of this (and he is), his resolute standpoint on the issue is a critical turning point in what seemed to be indeed a decelerating process directing towards further negotiations between parties; but if, on the one hand, the European Union seemed to gain the upper hand due to the internal division of the British Parliament, on the other one, Johnson’s latest harsh initiatives to suspend the Parliament and to expel the dissident Tories might be just another demonstrative act of force in order to get more leverage with EU counterparts – just like the 2016 referendum.
The geopolitical and economic scenarios of both the United Kingdom and the European Union will be determined by the turn of events that Brexit will take in the next months; as today, the issue is still open for many possible outcomes.