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EDITORIAL: The terms of Brexit pose endless concerns

“To me, Brexit is easy,” declared Nigel Farage, vice chairman of Leave Means Leave, back in September 2016.

If the past week is any indicator, that is definitely not the case.

Brexit in and of itself is messy, but if the United Kingdom is following through with it, there is need for a comphrensive, fast agreement on how that will take place. 

When then-Prime Minister David Cameron and the Conservatives won a majority in 2015, Cameron held the referendum he had promised to the citizens of the U.K. It asked a single question: exit the European Union or remain?

The U.K. voted to leave the E.U. by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent in a move nicknamed Brexit. Cameron, as leader of the Remain Campaign, resigned as Prime Minister. His successor and current Prime Minister Theresa May followed through with the vote. May previously served as Home Secretary and, albeit soft-spoken on the issue, was a part of the Remain Campaign.  

The vote in itself, with such a narrow difference, poses concerns and should not have held as much weight as it has. A decision as large and effective as this should never have been left up to the people in the manner that it was.

Parliament and Cameron did not attach stipulations on the referendum like other countries, such as Italy, do. For instance, require a 65 percent voter turnout and a 70 percent majority vote to change the status quo.

Furthermore, Scotland overwhelmingly voted to remain, which has sparked new tensions and further stimulated the Scottish National Movement.

In her pursuit to follow Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which allows for a two-year negotiation of terms of the split, May set the U.K. on the rocky path that it is now stumbling along today.

May and the rest of the E.U. have been negotiating a withdrawal agreement, also called the “divorce papers,” which spells out what Brexit will look like. Last Sunday, all 28 E.U. member states approved the current draft. Now the agreement must be voted on by Parliament, but here’s the thing: most members of Parliament say they hate it.

It’s not surprising why.

In addition to having the U.K. pay $50 billion to honor E.U. commitments — a “fair financial settlement,” — the withdrawal agreement specifies that the U.K. will undergo a transition period of 21 months after the official March Brexit date. This will, hopefully, give the U.K. and E.U. time to reach a trade deal.

Most members of Parliament hate this deal, but for different reasons, rendering a deal more and more difficult to reach. 

Given that the entire point of the 2016 Brexit vote was to “take back control,” it does seem that May’s withdrawal agreement is rather contrary to Brexit.

Just within the Conservative Party in Parliament, there exist roughly two factions: those who wanted to remain in the E.U. and supported Cameron and those who supported exiting the E.U. and supported the former Mayor of London Boris Johnson.

Even larger oppositions exist among the Labour Party and the Scottish Nationalist Party. However, the Labour Party has been unable to properly combat the Conservatives, and the Scottish Nationalists simply do not have the votes in Parliament to put up an effective fight.

Though Scottish Nationalists want to remain in the E.U., they may allow Brexit to continue so that they can call for a second Scottish Independence Referendum.

Brexit also poses a large conundrum with the Irish border.

Northern Ireland is part of the U.K., while Ireland is not and is a member of the E.U. After a time of violence between them, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 declared the border “invisible” in order to promote peace, and today the economies between North and Republic and closely linked.

However, Brexit could kill the Good Friday Agreement. Although the border is effectively internal today, it will become external to the E.U. after Brexit, which would call for stricter border customs. It is feared that this could threaten both of the Irish economies as well as peace itself.

Theresa May has vowed that there will be no “hard” border, but nobody has yet agreed on how to make that happen. Once the U.K. exits the E.U., it is entirely likely that the free trade of goods between Ireland and the U.K. will be jeopardized.

If just Northern Ireland stayed in the Customs Union (EUCU) and European Single Market, as the Republic wishes, then a customs border would exist between Ireland and Britain. But the U.K. says that would be a threat to its sovereignty.

Also worth noting is that, with Brexit, the relationship between the U.K. and the E.U. would fall back on the World Trade Organization. Under WTO rules, the U.K. couldn’t just declare an open border with the Irish Republic or else it would have to do so with everyone. A massive influx of imports would shred its economy to bits.

Right now, though, ideas are unclear. Until this is resolved, the U.K. will have to continue following most E.U. rules to keep free trade between the North and the Republic alive.

If no decision can be reached on trade, the withdrawal agreement includes a “backstop,” which means there would be no “hard” Irish border, meaning Northern Ireland would continue following many E.U. rules.

All of these extra conditions in the agreement means a raucous, unhappy Parliament. So it is unlikely that they will vote for it.

If the agreement fails in Parliament, May will have three weeks to present something new. Or, the date of Brexit could be extended, but that would require the blessing of all other 27 EU members.

Worst case scenario: no deal. No deal means that on March 29, 2019, UK membership in the E.U. will cease suddenly and completely with no transition, no easing out. And, as of now, that is how things seem to be playing out.  

It is better to have some withdrawal agreement than no withdrawal agreement, and so perhaps eventually, fear will be what gets members of Parliament to vote the deal through.

Until then, the easy “fix-all” solution that Brexit promised to be will remain the biggest problem Britain has faced this century.

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