Four arduous years hence, Britain (UK) left the European Union (EU or the bloc) on 31st December, 2020; beginning the new year as a European country beyond the EU’s jurisdiction, free to charter its own course politically and economically.
While it officially withdrew in January 2020, Britain spent the following 11 months operating under EU rules in what was called the ‘transition period,’ during which the two sides underwent extensive negotiations in re their future relations. The result-a trade agreement spelling out new rules of work, trade and life. Thereby finalizing Britain’s exit from the bloc i.e. the BREXIT.
As Britain prepares to embrace new opportunities and take on new challenges, allow me to take you through its journey of becoming the first and only country to formally leave the EU.
A farewell message on the White Cliffs of Dover from Sky News
A read…back in time!
In the year 1957, the Treaty of Rome was signed by France, West Germany, Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, in order to facilitate economic cooperation post WWII. It led to the establishment of the European Economic Community (EEC), predecessor to today’s European Union.
In the 1960s, the UK applied for membership to the EEC twice, only to be declined by France both the times. In 1973, the UK finally joined the EEC.
1975 saw the UK holding its first nationwide referendum (‘public vote’) on the question of its membership in the EEC. The people voted to stay in the bloc - 67% to 33%.
Contrary to the above results, tensions between the EU and the UK seemed to burgeon over the years.
The result? Another referendum…
In 2015, Britain’s then Prime Minister David Cameron’s prospect of returning to office stood largely dependent on the question of Britain’s position with respect to the EU.
His Conservative Party faced considerable pressure from the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), a small and staunchly Eurosceptic party, that had managed to garner support from not only the people but also certain Conservative Party figures, owing to its pro-Brexit stance.
With an aim to regain losing support, David Cameron included in his election manifesto, a promise to hold a referendum on the said issue, if he won the election.
Cameron secured his electoral victory and kept his promise, as the UK held the Brexit referendum on June 23, 2016 with the people being asked one simple question- ‘Should the UK leave or remain in the EU?’
While Cameron himself backed the ‘remain’ side, many prominent leaders of his party including current PM Boris Johnson backed the ‘leave’ side. The ‘leave’ side won by 52% votes.
Theresa May took over from Cameron after he resigned following the referendum results.
Statistics showing the Brexit referendum’s result
Former PM David Cameron holding the ‘Vote Remain’ rally’s in 2016.
Current PM Boris Johnson holding the ‘Vote Leave’ rally’s in 2016.
Why the ‘Leave’ side won?
Britain: the ‘awkward partner’ Being an island country with a few shared land borders, a different currency and its reluctance to further integration (Eg. the Schengen), Britain has earned for itself, the reputation of being an ‘awkward’ partner. This filtered into the mentality of Britons who felt less integrated with the EU contrary to other European citizens.
The UK with respect to the EU
Economy Advocates of the ‘leave’ side saw Brexit as an economic opportunity for Britain. Free trade and free market ideas, trade deals with nations outside the EU and away from the web of EU regulations were considered beneficial to Britain’s economy and a boost to Britain as a market.
Immigration Immigration has always been a contentious issue for Britain. A surge of migrants into the UK over the past decade and its mishandling by both the UK and the European Commission, the negative impact it had on day-to-day life was unprecedented. (Eg. increased unemployment, health care, etc.). Brexit was viewed as an opportunity for Britain to take back control of its own borders and thus control over immigration.
One of the most prominent billboards displayed during the referendum highlighting ‘immigration’
Brexit ‘May’de possible?
Succeeding PM Theresa May gave an official notice of the UK’s intention to leave to the EU, thus triggering Article 50 (formal EU divorce notice) in March 2017. The UK was set to leave the EU two years hence on March 29, 2019.
In order to back her Brexit plan, Theresa May called for a snap election in June 2017. However, she lost her parliamentary majority as a result and thus formed a minority government with the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
A series of negotiations between the UK and the EU begun, with an attempt to strike a deal on the manner of Britain’s departure from the bloc, called the Withdrawal Deal. The deal attracted two schools of thought -
Soft Brexit: this type of deal would secure a close relationship between Britain and the EU where Britain would still be bound by several EU rules, despite leaving the same.
Hard Brexit: this type of deal would result in a clean breakup where Britain would stand free of any EU regulations.
Negotiations also included framing of a Political Declaration, spelling out a framework of future relations.
Further, a Supreme Court ruling made it compulsory for the Parliament to have a say on any Brexit deal. Thus, despite reaching an agreement with the EU leaders on the terms of the withdrawal deal in 2018, Theresa May failed to get her ‘compromised in-out’ deal the required parliament support, THRICE, with overwhelming oppositions.
The exit date was further pushed to October 31, 2019, giving the UK another six months to formulate a withdrawal deal. However, Theresa May’s attempt to secure parliament support lay in vain and she stepped down as Prime Minister in June, 2019.
Former PM Theresa May
Why Theresa May’s withdrawal deal stood opposed?
The proposed withdrawal deal highlighted key points such as the divorce bill, citizen’s rights and arrangements for the Irish border.
It allegedly failed to give back the UK, control of its own affairs from the EU. The arrangements for the Irish border popularly referred to as the ‘Irish Backstop,’ stood as proof for the same.
What is the Backstop?
Ireland is partitioned into two parts -
Northern Ireland: part of the UK.
Southern Ireland: Irish Free State called the Republic of Ireland
Division of Ireland
Owing to Brexit, the border shared by the two sides would now become a frontier between the UK (Northern Ireland) and the EU (Republic of Ireland).
In order to prevent a physical border (guard posts and checks), Theresa May’s withdrawal deal suggested a ‘backstop.’
The backstop is like a safety net, meant to be the last resort to have an open border in Ireland, not-withstanding Brexit negotiations. This means that Northern Ireland excluding the rest of the UK, would follow certain EU rules.
This provision irked several MPs who felt that said EU rules could not be repealed without the EU’s permission.
The Johnson Era!
Boris Johnson succeeded Theresa May as UK’s new Prime Minister in July 2019. Entirely pro-Brexit by nature, he stood firm on UK leaving the EU on October 31, 2019.
Johnson begun his Brexit strategy by: i. Moving to renegotiate Theresa May’s Withdrawal Deal with respect to the Irish Backstop provision. ii. Ordering a temporary suspension of the Parliament to prevent any hinderance so caused.
While the temporary suspension was ruled as unlawful, he managed to renegotiate the said deal. A new protocol concerning the Irish Border was approved by the EU just weeks before the October 31 deadline.
Despite the PM wanting out on October 31, pressure from the parliament compelled him to seek further extension. The EU agreed and granted January 31st, 2020 as the new date of exit.
In an attempt to ensure smooth passage of his Withdrawal Deal, Boris Johnson called for a snap election in December 2019, which he won.
Further, the European Parliament approved the said Brexit Withdrawal Deal under which the UK was set to leave the EU on January 31st, 2020.
Current PM of UK Boris Johnson signing the Brexit Withdrawal Deal
The Transition Period: Beginning of an end…
Following its formal exit on January 31st, 2020, the UK entered into a 11 month ‘transition period’(as stipulated in the withdrawal deal) during which took place, negotiations with the EU on future relations.
While in transition, the UK continued to be bound to EU rules with respect to travel, right to live and work and trade.
Further, UK remained a member of the EU’s customs union and single market, however left all political institutions namely the European Parliament and European Commission.
Need for the Transition Period
The transition period was essential in terms of allowing business’, citizens and public administrations breathing space during ongoing UK-EU negotiations thereby ensuring that they easily adapt to the new arrangements.
The transition period ended on December 31st, 2020 with the UK leaving the EU’s single market and customs union, striking the UK-EU TRADE AND COOPERATION AGREEMENT.
This is just the beginning…
Extensive negotiations between the UK and the EU during the transition period culminated into the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement on December 24, 2020.
Approved by negotiators on both sides, this agreement has been provisionally applicable since January 1st, 2021, giving the European Parliament time to scrutinize the said provisions.
The UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement spells out the following key points:
Import and Export of goods: A free trade agreement ensuring zero tariffs and quotas on goods imported and exported between the UK and the EU has been agreed upon. However, this applies to goods meeting the agreement’s rules of origin. Leaving the EU’s customs union makes goods crossing the UK-EU border, subject to customs and checks. Business’ importing and exporting across the border will have to register and endure significant paperwork, increased costs and delays.
Movement of people: EU citizens residing in the UK up to December 31st, 2020 and vice versa can continue to live, work, study and enjoy social security in the UK and EU respectively (as per the Withdrawal Agreement). For others, visas may be required for travel between the UK and EU. However, the agreement guarantees visa-free short-term business trips up to 90 days in any 180 days period for activities such as tourism meetings, research, training, sales, etc.
Level playing field: In order to ensure regulated business’ and an absence of a competitive market advantage for either side, the agreement provides for a ‘level playing field’ in matters of competition laws, environment laws, state aid laws and employment rights.
Other sectors: Both the UK and the EU have continued access to each other’s air and road transport networks however, with increased limitations. The agreement also ensures access to the network of fisheries in the UK and EU waters subject to a five-year transition period and annual negotiations thereafter.
Cooperation: The agreement provides for UK-EU authorities to cooperate on matters of IPR, public procurement, energy trade agreements and digital trade. ‘The destiny of this great country now resides firmly in our hands.’ said PM Boris Johnson as his Parliament passed the aforementioned trade deal thereby ending the four-year long Brexit, paving way for the start of a new relationship with the EU.
It remains fairly uncertain to determine how the trade deal will pan out for the UK and the EU, given its nascent nature and pending approval from the European Parliament. Further, the question of the impact of this new relation on the global front is still looking for an answer. As Britain continues to fight the ongoing pandemic, termination of the Brexit is one battle won…or lost? Only time will tell…