Brexit: Britain’s Long-Awaited Exit from the European Union
Updated: Jan 12
After almost a year of conflict, negotiation, and failure, Britain formally separated from the European Union on January 31. Britain’s withdrawal was the fulfillment of promises made by multiple prime ministers and the culmination of decades of unease surrounding British participation in the EU.
What is Brexit?
Brexit is shorthand for “British exit,” referring to the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.
Britain’s separation is significant because leaving the EU means cutting offset trade and immigration agreements with countries in the bloc ― conveniences like free trade and free movement could be ended for Britain if another deal with the EU isn’t reached soon. Trade has been a primary issue surrounding Brexit ever since its inception.
Britain joined the EU in 1973 when it was still called the European Economic Community. Its membership has always been a divisive issue for British citizens; in a 1975 referendum (public vote), 67% of voters supported British membership.
Decades later, in 2013, then-Prime Minister David Cameron promised another referendum, hoping to close the issue by demonstrating public support to remain in the EU. However, in 2016, when the referendum took place, a 52% majority ― 17.4 million people ― voted to leave, marking the beginning of Brexit, and with it, years of tumult and disagreement.
Why has it taken so long?
Britain formally announced its decision to withdraw from the EU in 2017. According to the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, Britain’s departure would be in two years. The date was set for March 29, 2019.
But reaching an agreement with Parliament proved more difficult than expected for Prime Minister Theresa May. In a 2019 House of Commons vote, conservative lawmakers refused to approve a deal that could end with the EU having influence over Britain. May’s first attempt at passing the deal failed with a 230-vote margin defeat, one of the worst defeats in Parliament history.
The deadline for withdrawal was extended to June 30, 2019, but Parliament voted against the deal for the second time. For a second time, the deadline for Brexit was extended: this time to October 31, 2019. May failed to pass the deal after a third attempt. Following a third failure, May resigned from Prime Minister.
May’s successor, current Prime Minister Boris Johnson, vowed to pass Brexit by the October deadline. However, still unable to reach a deal, the EU further extended the deadline to January 31, 2020. In December, the UK’s General Election won Johnson a majority, giving him the numbers to finally pass Brexit. Parliament approved the deal on January 23. On January 31, Britain formally separated from the European Union. Nearly a year of failed deals, unfulfilled promises, and deadline extensions finally came to a close.
What happens now?
Although Britain is now technically separate from the EU, the consequences of Brexit do not go into effect until December 31. Britain is currently in an 11-month transition period, in which a new agreement with the EU will have to be reached. The struggle is far from over: in less than a year, Britain will have to renegotiate its relationship with the EU, or risk cutting ties with the bloc without a deal in place, which could prove disastrous for Britain.
At the forefront of ongoing negotiations is trade. Under EU regulations, Britain enjoys frictionless, free trade without tariffs. The UK hopes to agree on a deal with similar terms, comparable to the bloc’s free trade agreement with Canada.
The EU wants to uphold a free trade relationship with Britain as well, so on the surface, it appears that an agreement will be easy to negotiate. However, both sides disagree on a variety of pre-conditions: in particular, over fish and a regulated playing field. The UK wants looser arrangements; the EU wants set regulations. The UK is concerned with preserving full independence from Brussels; the EU is worried about striking a deal that will let Britain become a source of competition. Negotiations are a struggle to find a balance between the UK’s sovereignty and the EU’s prerogative.
Needless to say, reaching a viable trade deal by December 31 is daunting. If Britain wants a favorable trade deal, they may have to surrender some of their independence to the EU. But independence is a priority for Britons, and that may come at the cost of an agreeable trade deal. It’s a trade-off. The priorities of Britain now will determine its standing for years to come.
Britain has already made history as the first country to withdraw from the EU, but the next eleven months are crucial for the future of the UK. Brexit has always been a point of dissent, but negotiations between Britain and the EU are on a much larger scale than before. For now, the course of Britain’s future remains uncertain.