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Explaining Brexit

 5 min read / 

How Did Brexit Happen?

One may ask how did it come to this point? All this was made possible by David Cameron, the former prime minister of the United Kingdom, who called for a referendum about Britain’s continuing membership in the EU. He advocated staying inside the European Union by negotiating a favorable deal for Britain with Brussels. This deal did not please the British public and he lost the vote to the Leave campaign, championed by Boris Johnson, with whom he had attended the University of Oxford together. Some detracting voices might say the referendum was more a personal fight between two old rivals from University than a content-related one.

“It is time for the British people to have their say. It is time to settle this European question in British politics. I say to the British people: this will be your decision.”

David Cameron, January 2013

Nevertheless, the consequences of the vote were quite real, leading to the resignation of David Cameron and the appointment of Theresa May, former home secretary, as the new prime minister. Boris Johnson secured himself a prominent place in the new government as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.

Theresa May outlined very fast, after becoming the new prime minister, that she was committed to fully respecting the referendum and would follow the voice of the people and therefore deliver Brexit. Even though the referendum was a non-binding referendum and it is notable that during the campaign she was advocating for staying inside the EU.

“Not partial membership of the European Union, associate membership of the European Union, or anything that leaves us half-in, half-out.”

Theresa May, January 2017

A withdrawal letter was sent on 29th March 2017 to the European Council. This letter triggered Article 50 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU, which enables states to withdraw from the EU membership within a two years time frame. By triggering Article 50 the UK has to leave the EU by March 2019. An extension of this period can only be granted by a unanimous vote in the European Council, which is unlikely to happen.

Shortly afterwards Theresa May called for a snap election, which was held on the 8th of June. In this election the Conservatives won the vote but lost their absolute majority in Parliament. In the new parliament, the Conservatives are dependent on the Democratic Unionist Party, which provides confidence and supply for the minority government. The involvement of the Unionist party in the government makes the negotiations for Brexit harder since they are strongly promoting their minority positions, especially regarding the situation of Northern Ireland.

“The country is coming together, but Westminster is not.”

Theresa May, June 2017 

Theresa May faces a dilemma currently. There are sharp divisions within her party. On the one side, there are the hardcore Brexiteers, namely Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davis and on the other hand, more lenient conservatives are advocating for a soft Brexit such as Philip Hammond. The Prime Minister is stuck in the middle, trying to mitigate the threats of a coup by the hard-core Brexiteers or a bipartisan majority in the parliament for a second vote on Brexit by the lenient wing of her party.

A Fate To Leave The European Union?

Directly after the Second World War, there was strong sentiment within Europe for a union. This feeling was even apparent in the UK. A belief that only such a union could provide peace and security in Europe was high.

“We cannot aim at anything less than the Union of Europe as a whole, and we look forward with confidence to the day when that Union will be achieved.”

Winston Churchill, 1948

Even Churchill supported a European union at the end of the 50s, but this positive sentiment changed abruptly in the 80s and 90s. From a historical point of view, the departing of the United Kingdom from the European Union therefore might make more sense than viewed from the current state of affairs.

The UK in the 50s never had the intention to join a political union, presumably due to British fears of supranational body ruling in Europe. The British had always harboured a mistrust of their continental cousins.

Later, when the ECC achieved economic success, the UK saw the chance to further their own economy. They felt left and wanted to sit at the table where the decisions were made.

“There is the Common Market, and for us, there is no problem. For you, there is one: you want to get in, and that is your  problem.”

Charles de Gaulle, 1967 after the UK attempted to join the EEC

The first attempt to join the Union was blocked by Charles De Gaulle, the French president at that time, in 1961. It was only after he resigned that the UK could finally join the ECC in 1972. But as soon as Britain joined the EU in the 70s, feeling against the superstate in Brussels emerged.

“We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level, with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels”

Margaret Thatcher, 1988

Finally, the UK may never fully understand the political dimension of the EU, which was conceived by the founders of the EU: To have a political union achieved by economic means. The UK thought they were joining just an economic union and later they found themselves truly overwhelmed by the political component and dimension of an even deeper union. From this point of view, one might call the UK accession to the European Communities in 1972 a big misunderstanding.

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