On January 31 at 11 p.m., Britain will leave the European Union (E.U.). Since the historic vote back in 2016, Great Britain has been through three Prime Ministers, two General Elections, and three and a half years of arguments. The deadlock was broken with newly elected Prime Minister Boris Johnson winning a sizeable majority in December, which enabled him to pass the final Parliamentary laws necessary for leaving.
A European Clash
In 1973, Britain joined the European Communities (E.C.), which was a fairly simple trade organization made up of just eight other countries including France and Germany. Then, in 1975, the E.C. developed to become what is today known as the Common Market or ECC. Membership of the ECC required certain laws and regulations to be made in the trading bloc and not in individual nations, in order to have regulatory alignment (the same laws for every country in the union). A referendum vote was held to see if the people of Britain wished to continue. The result was an overwhelming yes.
However, as the years went on, more and more changes to the structure of this trading organization took place that required a handing over of national sovereignty. The trading bloc grew, adding new European countries. Treaties were signed by the governments that handed power to the ECC and away from the British parliament. These new powers formed the basis of what is today called the E.U. Many thought this was a price worth paying to be part of a large trading group.
But not everyone.
A Euro-Skeptic movement began around the same time that the E.U. was pressuring Britain to adopt the Euro as its currency and to do away with the Pound Sterling. They argued that a trade deal was not worth handing over law-making abilities to what was fast becoming a foreign government and that Britain should have control over its own laws, currency, and immigration policy.
It took over 20 years of campaigning, but electoral pressure from the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), then headed by Nigel Farage, forced Prime Minister David Cameron to offer an In/Out referendum on continued membership of the E.U. if he won the 2015 General Election with an outright majority.
Cameron, who was then leading a minority government in coalition with the Liberal Democrat Party, believed there was little chance he would gain an outright majority, but that the promise of a referendum would at least put himself and his Conservative Party back in power. The nation was stunned by the result.
A Brexit Referendum
Far from just winning the election, because of Cameron’s promise on the referendum, he was catapulted back to Westminster with a large majority and was beholden to the voters to deliver on his promise.
All leaders of the main political parties campaigned for Britain to remain part of the European Union. Nigel Farage, UKIP, and several grassroots movements campaigned to leave. On June 23, 2016, the public went to the ballot boxes. The vast majority of polling predicted that the Remain side would win, and it wasn’t until the results started coming in that David Cameron realized he had made a huge miscalculation.
The final result was 52% to leave and 48% to remain. Of the 650 voting constituencies in the U.K., over 400 voted to part ways with the E.U. It was the largest single vote for anything in the history of the country.
Because PM Cameron had campaigned to Remain in the E.U., he felt he should not be the person responsible for taking Britain out. A leadership election was held in the Conservative Party and Theresa May became the new prime minister. However, May did not seem to have the support, or perhaps the will, to complete Brexit.
The country remained divided between those who won the referendum and those who wanted to ignore the vote and carry on as before. PM May was unable to pass any legislation in Parliament, and without support, could not govern; another leadership election was called. Boris Johnson won this race and challenged the opposition Labour Party to agree to a General Election.
Labour, under leader Jeremy Corbyn was initially hesitant to agree to an election as the party’s stated position was to try and remain in the E.U. After much back and forth, an election was agreed to and Boris Johnson, running on a platform of “Get Brexit Done,” won a resounding landslide.
What Comes Next?
Although Britain officially leaves on January 31, this does not mean that the relationship is entirely over. During the next year, the British parliament will negotiate with E.U. leaders to determine if some kind of trade arrangement can be reached. So far, the E.U. is asking for what’s known as a “level playing field,” which in reality means political and legal alignment on rules and regulations. Boris Johnson has ruled this out, suggesting that it is this alignment that began Brexit in the first place.
If no trade arrangement is reached by the end of 2020, Britain will revert to trading on World Trade Organization terms, no different to any other country outside of the E.U. Whether PM Johnson wins another election will depend on how well he manages these negotiations.