Breaking Down Brexit: A Basic Overview of The U.K.’s Most Important National Decision

It seems like, nowadays, the only thing the news wants to talk about is this “Brexit” thing. With the amount of media coverage it’s getting, you’d think it was one of the single, most important national decision we’ve made in decades!

But, is it?

What is This “Brexit” Everyone Is Going On About?

Brexit is a portmanteau of the words “Britain” and “Exit”, a reference to the government’s plan to remove the country from the European Union. Although talks of the U.K. leaving the EU have been around for quite some time, it wasn’t until 2016 that a national referendum was held to decide the U.K’s fate in the European Union.

Did Everyone Agree to Leave the European Union?

On June 23, 2016, a national referendum was held to decide whether the U.K. will remain in the European Union or leave it altogether. An estimated 30 million people showed up for the vote, nearly 71% of voting age persons in the U.K., with “Leave” winning 51.9% of votes, and “Stay” receiving 48.1% of votes. A slim margin, to be sure, but enough to trigger the country’s exit from the European Union.

To break down the votes further: 53% of voters in England and 52% of voters in Wales were in favor of Brexit, while 55% of voters in Northern Ireland and 62% of voters in Scotland were in favor of staying in the EU.

Who Are These People Who Wanted to Leave? Why Did They Want That?

For years, the UK Independence Party, a right-wing populist party, had been campaigning for independence from what they perceive to be European meddling in British affairs, particularly in the areas of economy and immigration. In 2015, they received nearly 4 million votes in the general election, and a seat in Parliament. Joining them in the Brexit campaign during the referendum were a handful of Conservative Party MP’s, with the most prominent being Boris Johnson and at least 5 cabinet members. Although it was mostly a right-wing conservative voice, the Leave voters also consisted of some Labour MP’s, and the DUP, a Northern Ireland political party.

The primary reason given by those individuals and parties for voting leave were three-fold: first, they complained that the EU was severely holding back the U.K.’s economy, thanks to what-they-saw-as restrictive business laws as well as billions of pounds a year in membership fees, the latter of which gave “little in return”. A second reason for leaving was to allow the U.K. to create its own laws again without going through a shared-decision-making process with other EU countries.

The third, and arguably most contestable, reason for Brexit supporters was immigration; specifically, Brexit supporters wanted the U.K. to regain full control of its borders, reducing the number of immigrants who come to the U.K. to live and work. This concern was brought about the by EU’s “free movement” principle, which guarantees that all residents and citizens of the EU can live, work, and visit other EU countries without a visa.

Brexit supporters saw this as not only an infringement on the U.K.’s sovereignty but also propagates the idea of a single, European mega-state.

Who Are These People Who Wanted to Stay? Why Did They Want That?

Then Prime Minister David Cameron was the leading voice in the Remain campaign, after reaching an agreement with other European Union leaders that would have changed the terms of Britain’s membership had the country voted to stay in.

“Remain” supporters were primarily led by Then-Prime Minister David Cameron, the primary architect for many joint U.K.-European Union trade agreements that would have changed Britain’s membership terms had they remained in the union.

David Cameron’s backroom negotiations would have given the U.K. special status within the European Union and help address many of the issues the British people had about EU membership, like immigration. Critics, however, remained highly skeptical that Cameron’s deals would have made a difference.

Of David Cameron’s cabinet, sixteen voted to stay, including current Prime Minister Theresa May. Although a number of Conservative Party MP’s supported Brexit, the party at large remained neutral. Meanwhile, a number of political parties such as the Scottish National Party, the Green Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Plaid Cymru, and the Labour Party (aside from a few MP’s) were in favour of remaining in the European Union.

Sixteen members of Mr Cameron’s Cabinet, including the woman who would replace him as PM, Theresa May, also backed staying in. The Conservative Party was split on the issue and officially remained neutral in the campaign. The Labour Party, Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats were all in favour of staying in.

Foreign leaders were also in favour of the U.K. remaining in the EU, including then-President Barack Obama of the United States (unlike current President Trump, who is a fervent supporter of Brexit), as well as President Macron of France and Chancellor Merkel of Germany.

“Remain” supporters generally cited the U.K.’s numerous benefits of EU membership: easier trade with other EU nations, as well as arguing that the free flow of immigrations actually fuels economic prosperity by having more tax payers in the system, which in turn leads to better funding for public services.

But a big reason for voting “Remain”, supporters argue, is strengthening the U.K.’s reputation on the international stage. By remaining part of a 28-nation organization, the U.K. remains more secure and economically prosperous, as opposed to being a lone wolf.

The European Union? I’ve Never Head of Them!

Think of the EU as a mini-United Nations: it’s a political and economic partnership between 28 sovereign European states. After the Second World War, Europe in general decided that the best path to recovering and reinvigorating their respective countries is through mutual economic cooperation. This trade partnership would also minimize the risk of one member nation going to war with another.

Since then, the European Union has become a kind of “single market” entity, mostly thanks to the free movement of people and goods from one end of Europe to another. To facilitate easier trade, the European Union instated a single currency, the Euro, which is used by all but 9 of its member states. The European Union also retains its own parliament which creates specific rules and laws regarding consumer rights, transport, immigration, environment, and other issues that would make free trade between members easier.

So When Are We Leaving the European Union Then?

For a member-state to leave the union, it has to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Article 50 allows for a country to leave the EU after a 2-year period. Within these 2 years, the leaving state as well as the union discuss the terms of their split, kind of like divorce proceedings.

For the U.K., Parliament triggered Article 50 on March 29th, 2017, which means that, if it pushes through, the United Kingdom will no longer be a part of the European Union beginning March 29th, 2019. While this date can theoretically be extended (provided that all 28 countries agree to an extension), Prime Minister Theresa May, along with her cabinet and a majority of MP’s, have decided to stick to this deadline, even going so far as to write it into British Law.

Well, That’s It Then? Brexit is Definitely Happening?

Both the government and the main opposition party in the U.K. say that Brexit will definitely happen, despite attempts by various groups within the country to either stall or stop it. In fact, most politicians and parties who voted to Remain are now more focused on figuring out how to navigate our relationship with the EU after Brexit, with thoughts of reversing the decision being in the back burner.

There have been government ministers who have warned that Brexit might not happen, should their plans not be backed by Parliament, but by and large, the consensus in the U.K. and the EU is: Brexit is happening.

So, What’s Next?

The future, of course, remains uncertain. With world events happening at blazing speeds, it’s impossible to say with absolute accuracy what a U.K. exit from the EU will affect the country. Some say that it will give us more sovereignty over our laws, which in turn will bolster the economy and national security. Others, however, remain skeptical: some people think that Brexit will be an economic disaster, with business all over the country suffering from higher tariffs, which in turn would scuttle the economy and leave us dead in the water. And at this point, it’s too early which side is right.

Do you have thoughts about Brexit? Leave us a comment below (but remember, be respectful of each other!)

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