About two months ago, after 43 years of being a part of the European Union, the UK decided to officially leave, an event that has been dubbed “Brexit” by the global media. This exit is historical, and marks a turning point for the economic and geopolitical balance of Europe. However, many people around the world (including people in the UK) don’t have a clue as to what Brexit is all about.
As it turns out, there are many different factors and angles to this major decision, so it might be helpful to go through them one by one and learn why all of this has happened. Perhaps we should start at the beginning.
The Birth of the EU
Following World War II, Europe needed an answer to the devastation that had been caused by the global conflict, so an integration of sorts was proposed. While the group changed names a number of times and gradually added members, it began as six countries that were united against further armed conflict in the region. As of 2016, there are 28 member states in the EU, all of whom can benefit from the internal single system and overarching rule of law and guidelines. This is also a boon for the economy of the member states, in theory, as they are able to freely move goods, capital and human resources between member states.
The intention of Brexit was to involve as many nations as possible in this cohesive and supportive system, making it more difficult for foreign or malicious powers to gain control and cause another disastrous conflict. With more than half a billion people falling under its jurisdiction, and a combined GDP of nearly 19 trillion dollars, the EU is extremely powerful, which is why the departure of the UK is such a significant moment in modern European history.
Remain vs. Leave
A referendum was held on June 23, 2016 in the UK, which allowed nearly everyone in the country the ability to vote on whether the country would stay within the UK or separate the trade union and be fully independent. The argument and debate raged on for months leading up to the vote, which exposed some incredibly divisive lines in the citizens of the UK. The result of the referendum, in which nearly 30 million people took part, was 52% in favor of leaving, and 48% in favor of staying.
However, what most people don’t fully understand is that this referendum was mainly advisory in nature, rather than bound by law, and no formal proceedings for departure have thus far been started. That being said, there are many member states of the EU who no longer want the UK to be a part of the union, citing some of the unfair and “special” treatment that the UK has received in the past.
The arguments for remaining were quite clear; despite the economic impact that sending weekly “dues” to the EU had on the UK, the economic, social and cultural benefit of being a part of this open borders trade union far outweighed the downside. The odd thing is that the UK has long complained about its place in the EU, and the many restrictions it must follow in order to remain a member. The argument to stay was more of “common sense” than true loyalty to Europe. Unfortunately, even though economists across the world said that it could be potentially disastrous to the British economy, the country voted to leave.
The arguments for leaving were slightly more frightening, as cultural and social issues came to the fore in a major way. Immigration due to the open borders policy is what most “leave” supporters cited, claiming that foreign immigrants were stealing jobs, increasing crime rates, and watering down the essential “British-ness” of the nation. These social issues brought out certain xenophobic and vocal critics of immigrants, fueling the philosophical divide of the two sides of Brexit.
Demographically speaking, based on the referendum, most of the leave campaigners were older, working-class people from smaller cities, while those who wished to stay were younger, with better jobs, who primarily lived in cities. The recent spat of economic crises within the EU, such as Spain and Greece, in addition to the flood of recent refugees from the Middle East and North Africa, as well as Eastern Europe, has made the cause of “leaving” far more attractive to people in the UK. Many people don’t believe that the UK should be responsible for supporting failed economies throughout the EU.
Why Does Brexit Matter?
Brexit is hugely important because of the impact it could have on the movement of British people throughout Europe. Although the UK was not on the same currency as the EU, nor did it open its borders for the Schengen Agreement, the EU did allow free passage of UK citizens throughout Europe. This could limit educational opportunities, the chance to travel with as much freedom, and eliminate a cultural bridge to the diversity of European life.
Furthermore, in terms of economics, losing Britain would mean roughly 1/6 of the EU’s economic power would similarly depart. This could cause more of an imbalance in terms of power, with the weight shifting even further towards Germany, thus creating more instability within the ranks of existing members.
With all the crises that have struck recently, the tenuous balance of the EU was already shaky, and with the threat of anti-immigrant sentiment and nationalistic forces rising within certain EU countries, this is a dangerous time for the future of European integration. The EU has represented a strong front against the economic and social influences of Russia and Vladimir Putin, but his recent advances and flirtations with European nations is undeniable. Weakness on the part of the EU is not wise at this crossroads of history, and Britain’s exit could be a major blow. This isn’t being helped by the Brexit-leaning politicians in America either….
What Happens Now?
Even though the referendum is complete, it is basically a declaration for the UK to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which allows a member nation to leave the EU. This process takes two years, and leading Brexit voices in the UK say that the country could completely sever ties with the EU by as early as December 2018. Even so, as mentioned earlier, the referendum was advisory, not compulsory, so the UK still has some sliver of a chance to not leave.
That being said, the recent political upheaval following the referendum has left a number of pro-Brexit voices in powerful positions, including Theresa May (Prime Minister), Liam Fox (international trade minister) and Boris Johnson (foreign secretary). This is a likely sign that the UK intends to move forward with its departure from the EU. While the dust has not fully settled, this decision and the subsequent political shift has created some very tense situations in the UK, with non-British nationals being harassed or threatened.
It will be years before we fully understand the ramifications (both economic, cultural and social) that Brexit will have, but this is not going to be the last that we hear about it, since it will likely have some type of impact on the entire world.