Britons are typically a polite bunch. They’re fearful of giving offence and traditionally slow to take it. But the project of withdrawing from the European Union (Brexit) has got more people shouting their opinions and finding people to blame than anything anyone can remember.
The prime minister and her government are weak, and both parliament and electorate are divided. The referendum was in 2016 but the country still doesn’t know when it is leaving the EU – or even if it is leaving at all. How did it all come to this? The only adequate answer is very long and very complex. But there are certain standout moments in the UK’s relationship with the EU that have shaped the story.
One is the UK’s troubled quest to join the European Communities (EC) in the first place. Its first two attempts were vetoed by the French, but Britain was finally admitted in 1973 – without a referendum.
The Labour party sought to exploit ongoing unease by promising a public vote on whether to stay in the EC if it were to win the October 1974 general election, though the party itself was split on the issue. Labour did indeed win the election, and the following year the pro-European “Yes” campaign won the referendum with 67% of the vote, on a 65% turnout. This seemed to demonstrate that referendums on Europe could win elections and resolve party in-fighting.
The following decade saw the emergence of two explicitly distinct visions for Europe. On one side, that of the EC, and, on the other, that of the iconic British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. The EC sought to centralise ever more political power and economic regulation in its own institutions. Thatcher recognised the economic convenience of the Common Market, but grew ever more suspicious of the programme of political union.
The dirigisme she had spent much of her career rolling back in the UK could be reimposed across the entire EC by relatively new and unaccountable institutions. In her “Bruges speech” in 1988, and in the House of Commons in 1990, Thatcher signalled her divergence from the project of ever closer union.
The Conservatives lost power to Labour in 1997. But while Britain remained a member of the bloc, many Conservative MPs maintained Thatcher’s views on Europe.
Eastward expansion, westward migration
From 2004 to 2007 the EU expanded to encompass former Communist states including Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. The Labour government of the time (assuming that other member states would do the same) chose not to impose temporary travel restrictions on migrants from the new territories. It forecast only 5,000 to 13,000 arrivals. In fact, 129,000 people came in the first two years (2004-05).
To many Britons, it appeared not only that the government had lost control of immigration, but that no British government could ever regain control again while the UK was under the EU’s freedom of movement laws. Euroscepticism gained new public appeal from the recognition that continuously rising immigration would have implications for infrastructure, housing, public services and welfare, social relations and the job market. Such concerns later sharpened in view of the European migrant crisis.
While the nation’s main political parties had avoided the issue of immigration, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), led by plain-speaking Nigel Farage and devoted above all to taking the UK out of the EU, filled the vacuum. Farage reassured voters that it was neither racist nor xenophobic to want to see immigration controlled. His party’s growing popularity seemed to threaten the electoral hopes of both main parties, but especially those of the Conservatives.
The ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ referendum
The most momentous European policy call of any prime minister since 1973 was David Cameron’s decision to offer an in/out referendum on EU membership in his 2015 general election campaign. Some have blamed this decision, and therefore Cameron personally, for every twist and turn of the subsequent Brexit process. Some have even painted the whole affair as nothing but the explosion of Conservative party in-fighting. But such explanations overlook the role of 17.4m Leave voters, and the widespread assumption that Leave would not win.
By 2015 Cameron was under pressure to recover those traditional working-class voters who identified more with UKIP than with Cameron’s brand of cosmopolitan social liberalism. UKIP’s growing success in European elections had shown that eurosceptic votes were out there to be won. A promised referendum could win them back, and the ensuing Remain victory would contain Conservative eurosceptic MPs for a generation. For Cameron’s team, the risk of holding a vote was hard to gauge, but the political strategy seemed strong.
On referendum day, more people turned out than have ever voted for anything in the UK, delivering a 52% to 48% result in favour of leaving the EU. The next day Cameron announced his intention to resign.
Enter Theresa May
In what followed, the home secretary Theresa May emerged as Cameron’s successor. Though herself a cautious Remainer, May wanted to be the prime minister who would finally satisfy Britain’s long-running suspicion of European political unification and more recent anxieties about the freedom of movement. She saw that the UK could leave the single market and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice while retaining the benefits of other more peripheral EU programmes. Many eurosceptics also pointed to growing economic activity beyond Europe that EU rules prevented British business from exploiting fully.
May had inherited from Cameron a majority in the House of Commons, but a slim one. Delivering her vision of Brexit against strong opposition in the country and in parliament would be much easier with a larger majority of Conservative MPs. With this in mind, and Labour performing poorly in opinion polls, May called a snap election for June 2017. But although she attracted the largest number of votes for the Conservatives since 1992, Labour also did much better than expected. May’s plan had backfired. She lost her majority, alienated many Conservative MPs, and weakened her government’s power in parliament.
Article 50 and the rules of engagement
On March 29 2017, May formally announced the UK’s intention to leave the EU. Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union states that once this happens, there will be two years during which the terms of withdrawal will be agreed. Then, only once the member state is outside of the EU, the negotiations for a future relationship can begin (the EU is not allowed to negotiate “with itself”).
These rules are not accidental. They are supposed to prevent member states from using false notification of withdrawal as political leverage in internal disputes. But these rules also give the EU the stronger negotiating position, making any secession very unattractive. The EU cannot be forced to relinquish (or to retain) any of its existing powers against its own will, unless no agreement is reached. Neither can it be forced to discuss the terms of the future relationship until this first stage is complete.
This is what has given rise to disagreements over the open and practically invisible land border between Northern Ireland (which is an integral part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (which is not, but is in the EU).
The terms of the 1998 peace deal that ended the 30-year armed conflict between British and Irish Republican groups require that the border remains open. But if Northern Ireland leaves the EU customs union with the rest of the UK, customs checks may be needed, perhaps on the border. The terms of the future relationship between the UK and the EU might have enabled (and still might enable) the border to remain open. But the EU’s rules do not permit the future relationship to be discussed until the withdrawal is agreed first.
The detested deal
The UK and the EU agreed the terms of withdrawal, and published the details in November 2018. The agreement was met with instant criticism, including from the Brexit minister, who had not been privy to some major decisions. So far, it has been defeated three times in parliament.
Some MPs are blocking the agreement because they hope that its failure will lead to the abandonment of the Brexit project altogether. Others, notably the Conservatives’ most eurosceptic MPs, oppose it because it surrenders too much power to the EU, and weakens the UK’s position for negotiations on the future relationship.
Crucially, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) also opposes the withdrawal agreement, on account of the “backstop” condition that it proposes for maintaining an open border with the Republic of Ireland. The proposal is that Northern Ireland will remain in a customs union with the Republic of Ireland, and therefore with the EU.
This arrangement would not (necessarily) apply to any other part of the UK, only Northern Ireland, and would continue to apply if the rest of the UK does not later establish the sort of relationship with the EU that would allow the border to remain open. This proposed regulatory difference between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK is unacceptable to the DUP, which is strongly protective of Northern Ireland’s union with Great Britain.
The DUP fears that the “backstop” arrangement loosens Northern Ireland’s ties with the rest of the UK, and strengthens the claims of Irish Republicans to sovereignty over Northern Ireland. And because May still needs the support of the DUP’s ten MPs to sustain her minority government, it has been impossible for her to ignore their opposition.
Brexit was always going to be complicated, since the UK had spent 40 years entangling itself with the growing political, legal, and economic institutions of the EU – and especially complicated given that the majority of politicians (including the prime minister) actually voted to Remain.
But many of the particular frustrations could not have been foreseen. May’s government has been unable to deliver any kind of Brexit largely because of the unique parliamentary arithmetic produced by the 2017 general election. Labour has, for a long time, maintained a strategically ambiguous position on Brexit, preferring to point to mishandling and calling for another election, but it has failed to secure one. In any case, it’s unclear who will win the general election when it eventually comes. But voters will certainly have a lot to think about.