Explaining Brexit

My summary for interested Americans

Since I’ve had several American friends ask me what the deal is with Brexit, here’s my writeup. Please note in advance that percentages from polls aren’t exact, because they’ve varied up and down over the months of drama; and of course, who knows how accurate the polls even are these days? My aim is to describe why the overall problem is going on and on, not to indicate whether this or that political party has 34.4% or 34.6% support. Anyway…

For decades the UK popular press carried out a propaganda campaign against the European Union. They printed outright lies, to the extent that eventually the EU started a euromyths site to respond to them. One popular myth, that the EU was banning curved bananas, started around 1994 when EU Regulation 2257/94 was passed setting quality standards for bananas. The “bendy bananas” myth was still being repeated by Boris Johnson during the Brexit campaign.

At the same time, things like EU elections and EU government activity were basically ignored, and you’d have had a hard time finding anyone who knew who their MEP was. So many, perhaps even most people in the UK came to believe that the EU was an unelected interfering foreign government of incompetents.

In 2010, the Conservative government failed to get enough votes to get overall majority control of the government, and David Cameron was forced to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, who are the most pro-EU party. This led to a major division between the pro-EU Conservatives, and the anti-EU faction (“Eurosceptics”), with Cameron being seen as being on the pro-EU side.

To win the support of the anti-EU Tories, Cameron promised that if he was elected leader again, he’d hold a referendum on whether to stay in the EU or not. The plan was that “Remain in the EU” would win, Cameron could tell the Eurosceptics to shut up, and government would proceed as before.

In the mean time came the EU migrant crisis, and the rise of populist right-wing movements scaremongering that a wave of refugees was on the way to the UK to take your jobs and rape your wife and daughters. Immigration became the issue most likely to make someone support Brexit.

So contrary to what everyone expected, with some illegal campaigning, some Russian bots, some help from Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, and a lot of help from the UK press, the pro-Brexit side scraped a win in the referendum by 52% to 48%.

David Cameron resigned, literally wandering off from a press conference humming to himself. Theresa May painfully negotiated a deal with the EU, but it was voted down into oblivion three times by Parliament, which is a shame, because the EU has said it’s the most favorable existing deal for the UK that they will accept. So she resigned, and Boris Johnson was selected as the new Conservative Prime Minister.

So here’s how things stand as far as popular opinion:

  • About 45% of people in the UK want to remain in the EU.

  • About 20% want a “no deal” Brexit, where the UK ends up under WTO rules.

  • About 20% want something like Theresa May’s deal, i.e. the least bad viable option for Brexit.

  • About 10% want a unicorn that farts £350 million a week into the UK economy, because that’s what Boris Johnson told them they could have before the referendum.

Here are the main problems with those options:

  • Remaining in the EU would make about half the country incredibly angry, the half that has already threatened violence and committed murder.

  • A no-deal Brexit would, according to experts, trash the UK economy even worse than it’s already being trashed by the possibility of Brexit. The banking industry is already exiting London, and that’s 8% of the UK’s GDP. Car companies and other manufacturing enterprises have left too.

  • Theresa May’s deal would require that the UK pay the EU money it already owes, and the economy would still face a downturn. That makes it politically untenable.

  • The unicorn deal won’t happen. The EU has said so, repeatedly.

This week, Boris attempted to shut down Parliament so he could force a no deal Brexit without interference, and basically rip the Band-Aid off. Enough MPs are against a no-deal exit that he was defeated, and had to call a general election.

If the Labour party is elected, the situation gets worse: while the party on the whole is pro Remain, Jeremy Corbyn is personally in favor of Brexit, and has said that he’ll go back and start the negotiations again, promising that he’ll manage to get a deal his party will like.

If the Liberal Democrats are elected, then the farce will possibly end by Brexit being canceled. However, as noted above, this will likely result in a lot of civil unrest.

If the Conservatives are re-elected, we’re back to the same situation where they want Brexit, but can’t come up with a proposal enough of them will agree with, and the farce continues.

(There are also two pro-Brexit parties, the UK Independence Party and the Brexit Party, but they’re basically Conservatives and will help form a Conservative government if necessary so that they can try to get a no-deal Brexit.)

The EU elections this year were perhaps an indication of the country’s mood. The Liberal Democrats got 24%, the Brexit Party got 22%, Labour and the Conservatives got 19% each. So the country is still about 50/50 divided between Leave and Remain.

So, what about the UK government’s legislation defying Boris Johnson and prohibiting a no-deal Brexit? Well, that’s somewhat symbolic, because it’s not entirely up to the UK.

As per Article 50, there was supposedly a hard deadline of May 15th for the UK to leave the EU; if nothing was passed by the UK government by that date, the UK was supposed to be ejected from the EU with no deal. That didn’t happen; the EU agreed to an extension and said the UK could have until October 31st to decide what option it wanted.

It seems inevitable at this point that the UK won’t manage to hold an election and make a decision by October 31st. Will the EU allow the UK another 6 months of dicking around asking for unicorns? Hard to say. On the one hand, the EU doesn’t want to hurt the 50% of the UK who want to be EU citizens. On the other hand, allowing the UK to ignore its treaty requirements and also send anti-EU MEPs to sit in the EU parliament is weakening the EU.

My personal guess is that eventually the EU will get fed up and the UK will be forced out with no deal. Until then, we’ll get either Labour or Conservative governments flailing about trying to make a decision.

There’s one more massive problem with Brexit. I haven’t mentioned it above because I don’t honestly think it’s factoring into UK politicians’ thinking processes, but it’s this: Ireland.

Ireland is currently divided into two parts: the Republic of Ireland, and Northern Ireland. The British border in Ireland was once fortified, with military checkpoints. As part of the process of implementing the Good Friday Agreement, these were gradually removed.

If Brexit happens, one side of the border will be in the EU, and the other will not. This will likely require the reintroduction of border controls, customs, walls and fences — a “hard border”. This will breach the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, inflame tensions, and maybe cause a return to sectarian violence.

To try to avoid this, the UK government proposed the “Irish backstop”. This was an agreement that there would be no hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland unless both the UK and EU agreed that a hard border was OK. The backstop was part of Theresa May’s deal, which (as a reminder) was rejected three times over.

So, all in all, a massive clusterfuck which will be hurting the UK for years, probably decades. It’ll probably hurt Ireland too, particularly if “no deal” happens. Now, here’s the punchline:

The Brexit referendum was an advisory referendum. It was not in any way legally binding. There was no requirement that the UK trigger Article 50, leave the EU, or even commit to discussing how Brexit might hypothetically happen at some unspecified future date.