Featured image: British Prime Minister Theresa May, shown here dancing like a true legend, suffered the biggest Commons defeat in British history when that body overwhelmingly voted to reject her exit plan.
Friday, 22 February 2019, London, United Kingdom – On 23 June 2016, a referendum was held to determine the future of the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union. The population was divided almost completely evenly on the issue, with 51.9% voting leave and 48.1% voting remain, an extremely narrow margin. The UK has not even left the European Union yet, but the fog of uncertainty floating over the country is already doing it damage.
The UK has since become the worst performing economy in the G7 (a forum of seven industrialised global powers). Multinational companies are moving their European operations out of London in preparation for the impending withdrawal, and the Pound Sterling has suffered a 14% drop in value. But what is the deal with Brexit anyway? Why is it causing such an enormous national emergency in Britain and what are the consequences if there is no exit deal by 29 March?
In accordance with Article 50 of the Maastricht Treaty of 1993 (which created the modern European Union), any member state of the European Union that wishes to leave it can do so by implementing that article of the treaty. The state in question then has precisely two years from the day of implementation to negotiate an exit deal with the European Union, then on the second anniversary of that state’s implementation of Article 50, they will formally lose their membership within the EU. In Britain’s case, Article 50 was implemented by Prime Minister Theresa May on 29 March 2017, which is why she must negotiate an exit deal by 29 March 2019. If no deal can be reached with the EU by that date (which is very likely at this point), there will be profound consequences for Britain’s economy, people, and security, which will be discussed later.
Theresa May’s government has already produced a 600-page long proposed exit deal, but when she presented this deal to the House of Commons, they overwhelmingly rejected it – 202 MPs voted yes and 432 voted no. There are two things that are baffling here – first, that anyone has found time to read and produce 600 pages of political jargon, but also, this defeat was not just overwhelming – this was actually the biggest Commons defeat in contemporary British history. Again, it is extremely important that the UK gets a deal through by the end of March. Which is why it’s so shocking that the Commons rejected it by such a huge margin. So what happens under a no deal Brexit?
Problem #1 of a No Deal Brexit: Northern Ireland
For those who don’t know, most of the UK’s territory is Great Britain (the countries of England, Scotland, and Wales), with a small portion of British territory on the island of Ireland. At the moment, both Ireland and the UK are part of the European Union, meaning that there is no need for checkpoints on the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (a “soft border”).
But since the UK will be leaving the EU, that will restore checkpoints on this border (a “hard border”), and that’s really bad. For more details on why, you should check out our post on “The Troubles”, a decades long sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland in which buildings, border checkpoints, and vehicles were bombed and thousands of people died in politically motivated terrorist attacks. If the UK leaves the EU on 29 March without an agreed upon plan for the checkpoint problem in Northern Ireland, a hard border in Ireland would be immediately restored. If this were to happen, violence associated with the Troubles could return, and checkpoints shot at and bombed.
A few solutions have been proposed for this problem. One solution, advocated by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, has been to place checkpoints near the border, but not at the border. When he was asked for comment on this, however, he sort of just ran away on his bicycle.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, presumably having just woken up from the park bench he sleeps in each night.
The preferred solution for both May and the EU is this thing called “the backstop”. What this means is that Northern Ireland would remain part of the UK, but would be subject to EU customs and immigration law, not the UK’s. This would put the hard border through the Irish Sea instead of on the island of Ireland, thus avoiding violence. This seems like the best solution, but “Brexiteers”, the people who advocate a complete cutoff with any ties to the EU, do not like this idea and they want May to renegotiate. The EU says they are done negotiating the issue of Northern Ireland and they will not discuss it further.
Problem #2 of a No Deal Brexit: Other checkpoints, import delays
If the UK leaves the EU with no deal on 29 March, WTO regulations will kick in overnight, which would lead to customs checks immediately being installed not only at the Chunnel, but also at trans-channel ferries. One estimate suggests that if trucks were delayed by customs checks even by just 70 seconds, the wait to board the ferry would take six days. And a six-day wait won’t cut it for things like fresh fruit, flowers, and medicine.
Problem #3 of a No Deal Brexit: The British Economy
According to an analysis conducted by the British treasury, Britain’s economy could shrink by 4% over a period of 15 years if Theresa May’s deal were adopted. On the other hand, if no deal is adopted in time for the 29 March deadline, the UK economy would shrink by 10%. Additionally, having no deal could leave shelves empty, and a company has even begun marketing “Brexit boxes”, large cans filled with food in case the “no deal” transitions into the apocalypse.
All of this looks pretty grim, so why doesn’t the UK just cancel Brexit and say “forget about it, this is dumb”? Well, they actually can. The European Court of Justice has concluded that the UK can revoke its intention to withdraw from the EU at any time, but this is not going to happen because of the political backlash Theresa May and her government would receive by defying the popular vote. And besides, the first referendum was fatally flawed to begin with. The British Government dumped a difficult and enormously consequential decision onto the electorate, which had virtually no information on the consequences of how they voted, or even the issue itself. Many Britons have admitted that they voted on a whim, or just made a snap decision without giving any thought at all.
So let’s hope that Theresa May and her government have the wisdom and ability to get a good exit deal through that protects the British economy, keeps the peace in Northern Ireland, and prevents checkpoints from springing up at ports of entry. Obviously that’s not going to happen, so to distract you from that fact, here’s a question: