It’s not a simple issue but we’re going to try to give a simple explanation of Brexit here.
So… you’re wondering…. What is it? What’s going on? Who’s who? Why’s it become such a drama for the UK? Why is it taking so long?
Well, here’s your essential guide in a simple explanation of Brexit.
Let’s start at the beginning…
WHAT DOES BREXIT MEAN?
Brexit is the term coined for the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union (EU), a political and economic union of 28 European counties.
It is a condensed abbreviation of ‘British exit’.
WHY DOES BRITAIN WANT TO LEAVE THE EU?
In June 2016 there was a referendum in the UK when people were asked to vote on whether they wanted to remain in the EU or to leave.
The result of that referendum was very close, with 48.11% wanting to remain and 51.89% wanting to leave.
Overall, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain, whilst England and Wales voted to leave. The breakdown was as follows:
Gibraltar, the British territory off Spain, also voted in the referendum, and the result there was 95.9% for remain.
WHY WAS THE REFERENDUM HELD?
Good question. The then Prime Minister, David Cameron, gave in to pressure from eurosceptic Members of Parliament (MPs) in his own party, the right-wing Conservative Party (also known as the Tory Party or Tories), to hold the referendum.
Since the 1990s and the signing of the Maastricht Treaty, which laid down the framework for the development of the EU, Conservative Party eurosceptics have been against the union.
They believe it takes away power from the United Kingdom and the UK Parliament. The Tories were out of power or in a coalition government for nearly two decades but once they regained the reins of power, the eurosceptics resumed their push for their ideology.
Cameron also had the ultra-right wing, anti-EU party, the United Kingdom Independent Party (UKIP), nipping at his heels politically, taking votes and MPs from the Conservatives, and as he was unable to control this dissent, he was forced to allow a referendum.
It is said that Brexit is the result of an internal Tory party fight, into which Cameron dragged the whole country.
WHO ARE THE MAIN PLAYERS?
Before we go any further, in order to make this simple explanation of Brexit comprehensive and to understand the whole picture, we need to take a look at the main protagonists.
Brexiteers or Leavers – want UK to leave the EU
Remainers – want UK to remain in the EU
A right wing party, it is predominantly made up of Brexteers, many of whom are happy to leave the EU on ‘hard Brexit’ terms. This means leaving without an agreement for the future cooperation or relationship between the UK and the EU, including trade agreements. The effects of this could be as dramatic as running out of food and medicines.
Most Conservative Party members and voters are older; the average age is estimated to be in the mid to late 60’s. It’s ironic that although this demographics is likely to be amongst the wealthiest in the country and therefore the most likely to benefit from travel or property ownership in Europe, they are also the most pro-Brexit.
In Parliament as well as in their membership and voters, the Labour Party is a mixed bag on Brexit. Labour is left wing and typically represents the working class.
The irony is that many Labour voters in the industrial areas of Britain voted to leave the EU although it is this segment of society that will be most negatively impacted from a shrinking market and the inevitable loss of jobs.
Another core segment of Labour voters are young adults, and this group is very pro-EU.
This split in their voter base has led the Labour Party to pursue a policy of ‘soft Brexit’, meaning to respect the result of the referendum by leaving the EU but to maintain close ties through regulatory alignment to preserve jobs and try to unite the country. However in an increasingly black and white world this is proving difficult.
Scottish National Party (SNP),
The SNP represents Scotland and is pro-EU, as was the Scottish vote.
The issue to many Scots is that in 2014 when Scotland had their referendum on independence from the UK, one of the warnings frequently repeated to the Scottish electorate by British MPs was that if they voted to leave the UK they would lose their EU membership. In the 2014 referendum they voted to remain in the UK. In the 2016 EU referendum, Scotland voted to remain in the EU, so not surprisingly the Scots are angry as they have essentially voted to remain in the EU twice now but may still be dragged out regardless.
It’s been hard to know where the Liberal Democrats stand on this, as their stance has changed significantly.
Before the referendum, their party leader campaigned for a referendum and seemed to be pro leaving the EU. However, since the referendum took place, the party has become a staunch pro-remain party to the extent of wanting to ignore the referendum result altogether.
They lost almost all their seats, and credibility, after they supported the Conservative Party in a coalition government and went back on most of their election pledges in order to remain in power, so to many it’s not a huge surprise that they have u-turned on this policy too.
United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)
UKIP is a very right wing, very anti EU party, set up and fronted by Nigel Farage, who became an MEP only to try to take down the EU from within. He quit UK politics and UKIP after the referendum as he felt his job was done.
Nigel Farage (formerly of UKIP) returned to politics and formed the Brexit Party as he felt that Brexit was not being delivered properly.
They won a large number of seats in the European elections of May 2019, and now have the most MEPs of any one party in the European Parliament, although none in the UK parliament.
The Brexit Party is actually a private company not a political party)
Phew…. right… well we did say this wasn’t a simple issue… and it’s not a case of just throwing out a few lines as a simple explanation on Brexit, because there are so many factors to be understood.
WHY DID SO MANY VOTE TO LEAVE THE EU?
There were a range of factors that influenced individuals, and some broad underlying causes, so to get to a simple explanation of Brexit we need to briefly explore all these.
In the UK the media is predominantly right-wing, and for many decades it has stoked anti-EU sentiment by, for example, misrepresenting the role and the power of the EU over British sovereignty; by promoting negative stories while ignoring positive benefits; by blaming the EU for failings of British governments; by using biased and inflammatory language about the EU or EU nationals in the UK, and in general presenting an opinioned agenda presumably to foster anti-EU feeling in the general populace in Britain.
On top of this, there was the backdrop of the 2008 financial crisis in the UK, and the subsequent years of austerity policies that resulted. It’s believed that the referendum vote was also an anti-establishment protest vote, to indicate discontent against austerity. It has been widely considered unfair that the banks, who caused the financial crisis, were bailed out whilst communities of ordinary workers, hard hit by the crisis, were punished by years of stagnant wages, rising prices, and crippling underfunding for basic essential services.
Against these backdrops, the range of people’s voting decision included:
- some, like the parliamentary eurosceptics, believed that Britain was losing its autonomy to an undemocratic European Parliament (called ‘Brussels’, due to its main location), and they wanted to ‘take back control’;
- some believed EU nationals were coming to Britain in droves only to abuse the UK’s generous benefits system, whilst others believed that the EU nationals coming to the UK were taking British jobs from British people and driving down wages;
- some opposed the free movement of EU nationals to Britain as they believed that ‘immigrants’ were putting pressure on resources and services in their communities, such as schools and hospitals, which were already stretched by austerity policies;
- some believed the messages from Leave campaigners which presented the spectacularly optimistic ‘sunny uplands’ of advantages for the UK outside of the EU, with no down sides;
- most people did not understand exactly what they were voting for – this is a controversial statement and people are often boo-ed for expressing it in TV debates, however I believe it’s valid because in order to understand the full implications of Brexit you need to have read and understood mountains of legal texts that make up the EU, the World Trade Organisation, treaties like the Good Friday Agreement etc., and obviously not many of us have.
Where’s Brexit at now?
Well…. whichever ‘side’ you’re on, the one unanimous belief is that things have gone from bad to worse. The UK was due to leave the EU in March 2019. This did not happen because the British Parliament could not agree on the terms of leaving (or whether to leave at all.
Theresa May, who took over as Prime Minister directly after the referendum, spent two years negotiating a Withdrawal Agreement with the EU but it did not get the support needed in the UK Houses of Parliament to pass into law.
Hard Brexiteers in her own party said it did not distance the UK far enough from the EU, and that we would remain ‘trapped’ for an indefinite period. (see below The Ireland Question)
Another option has been to leave without a deal, known as ‘no deal’ or ‘hard’ Brexit, and favoured by many eurosceptic Brexiteers. This too did not command a majority in Parliament, as many felt it would be too detrimental to the economy and the country. In the absence of a deal, there were serious concerns that the country could quickly run out of goods in the shops, airplanes could not fly and there could be descent into chaos or worse, and it is argued that no one voted for that.
Pro EU MPs and public are pushing for another referendum called the People’s Vote. This is intended to be a confirmatory vote on any deal proposed and accepted by the Houses of Parliament. They believe that people are more aware of the implications of Brexit than in 2016 and should be allowed to express their opinions again. They also want ‘no Brexit’ on the ballot as a means to stop Brexit altogether.
Brexiteers are completely opposed to this because they say that there’s already been a people’s vote in 2016, and the ‘will of people’ expressed then has not been implemented. They, not surprisingly, ask if we will keep having referendums until the Remainers get the result they want.
It’s interesting to note that in the recent European election in May 2019 to elect MEPs, which was taken by many as an unofficial referendum, results showed that opinion has become more polarised with parties for ‘no deal Brexit’ and ‘no Brexit’ both gaining support. Both camps claim to represent the majority now, based on how they chose to interpret and attribute votes received by parties who were not one-issue Brexit parties. Undeniable though is that the new Brexit Party set up by Nigel Farage, which was only a few weeks old, gained strong support in a very short space of time.
So, in summary, the UK Parliament is split so completely that no matter who proposes a potential solution, it does not get a majority and cannot move forward. Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement has been rejected, a no deal Brexit has been rejected, the People’s Vote has been rejected, as have a number of other variations. Because of this, the date to leave the EU was extended, and is now 31st October 2019, coincidentally Halloween.
WHY HAS IT ALL BECOME SO COMPLICATED?
With the referendum result split almost equally down the middle for the two sides in the country it’s not all that surprising that Parliament reflects this and is in deadlock.
It’s also a hung parliament, which means that no one party has a decisive majority.
It has also transpired that ‘leaving the EU’ means different things to different people, including politicians in the same party.
So giving a simple explanation of Brexit has to trawl through very muddied waters.
Theresa May’s red lines were that leaving the EU meant leaving the Single Market and the Custom Union (two key EU mechanisms of trade including movement of people, borders, tariffs etc.). However opponents to this point out that obviously Canada is not in the EU although they have a Customs Union agreement with the EU. Similarly, Norway does not sit in the EU parliament, does not have any voting rights, is not in the EU, yet they have a Single Market arrangement with the EU. Indeed during the referendum debates before the vote, leading Brexiteers repeatedly allayed people’s fears by saying, no one was suggesting we would leave the Single Market and/or the Customs Union.
THE IRELAND QUESTION
Another of the major obstacles has been finding a solution to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Historically this is an immensely contentious issue which saw decades of violence and thousands killed before the Good Friday Agreement bought peace and stability to the area in 1998.
In brief, Northern Ireland (NI) belongs to the UK, and it is mainly Protestant. Catholics in NI want the territory reunited with the Republic of Ireland and believe the British are there illegitimately. When there was a border between them, British Army patrols erected blockades and manned check-points, which further inflamed the situation and they were routinely bombed by those wanting a united Ireland. Bitter tensions engulfed the area, and bombs were even set off on mainland Britain and London.
When both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland became part of the EU it allowed a middle road agreement. The border was removed so it spoke to those wanting a return to an undivided landmass, and there was full regulatory alliance between Northern Ireland and the UK, which spoke to those who wanted union with the UK.
If the UK leaves the EU without a customs union agreement, there will need to be borders between the UK and the EU.
The Republic of Ireland would of course remain in the EU, but not Northern Ireland.
Northern Irish Republicans (those who want to be part of the Republic of Ireland) have already began agitating and sending signals via car bombs a few months ago, warning that they will not tolerate a hard border between The Republic and the North, and it is feared that there might be a return to ‘the Troubles’ of the past if a hard border were to be implemented.
In the Withdrawal Agreement Theresa May and the EU tried to address this by negotiating an insurance policy against a hard border – known as the backstop. It was proposed that unless and until a (probably technological) solution could be found to effect a border, Northern Ireland and the whole of the UK would remain in a Customs Union with the EU. Brexiteers reject this as it gives no definitive timeline to an end of this situation, and the UK could not pull out from the agreement unilaterally. Many Brexiteers consider that staying in the Customs Union is not actually leaving the EU.
Another good question. At this stage it’s still difficult to give a clear, definitive, simple explanation of Brexit moving forward, as we currently find ourselves in a continued, confused limbo.
As her Withdrawal Agreement was unsuccessful several times in Parliament, Theresa May has been forced to resign as Prime Minister. There is currently a contest going on to find her replacement. There will not be a General Election for this, instead the successor will be chosen by members of the Conservative party only – estimated optimistically to be around 150,000 people. This may include children as there are no rules against this apparently.
The favourite is Boris Johnson who was the main leader of the Leave campaign for the referendum, and so is a staunch Brexiteer. Despite his popularity amongst the Tory party faithful, he is not regarded as Prime Minister material by many. His track record, professionally and personally as a character, has come into doubt. He has been sacked from several jobs for lying, has repeatedly made racist and misogynistic comments blatantly in public and in articles he’s written, has tried to disown at least one illegitimate child from an affair through a forced gagging order, has been involved in facilitating for a journalist to be beaten up, has received money from Russian oligarchs, has been associated with far-right political figures, and scathing reports have come out from those who have actually worked directly with him claiming he seems disinterested in being briefed and is never prepared nor on top of his game.
His declared intentions on moving forward with Brexit have all already long been ruled out as not legal or possible by the EU, the Republic of Ireland, the World Trade Organisation, and others.
He seems happy, and determined even, to leave the EU without a deal, but as this has already been rejected by Parliament there is talk that he might try to prorogue Parliament. This means to shut Parliament down so that nothing can be debated or voted on, and would be done to run down the clock to the October deadline so that by default the UK would flop out of the EU without a deal. Pro and anti EU MPs from across all parties have condemned this as wholly undemocratic. One MP from Johnson’s own Conservative party has said that he would take Johnson to court to prevent it and another has said he will continue to hold Parliament in another building across the road.
Hope this has been a simple explanation of Brexit to help you feel ready to join the tussle that seems to be the endless Brexit debate!
And to sooth your aching brow after delving into all these complicated political conundrums, here’s a light-hearted look at Brexit using…. yes, a tea bag analogy.
A simple explanation of Brexit – July 2019