Brexit: Au revoir the U.K. ?

Othon Leon Analysis, Europe, Politics & Society

10 minute read

Historically, the United Kingdom has been a model in terms of efficient, elegant and discrete democracy, however, “the Islands” also have been a group of nations dubious of its European identity. This bickering (on Europe) is legendary and hence as ancient as the moment in which William the Conqueror set foot back in 1066. Since then, the relationship between the British and the continent has been a difficult one; we can compare the desire of belonging and integrating into the continent to an emotional rollercoaster; at times, the U.K. turns its back…at times, it wants to belong.

Almost three years ago, a majority of British citizens expressed the desire to leave the European Union, however, this time giving Europe the cold shoulder has proven difficult, controversial and even traumatic.

In Brief

What happened?

What back in 2016 was supposed to be a referendum to confirm the permanence of the U.K. within the European Union (a commercial and progressist agreement between its members, according to the perception of British citizens), turned out to be one of the deepest political crisis in modern British history; a nightmare of unimagined proportions and an important matter of security for the government.

Why does it matter? 

There is no such thing as a good way to leave the E.U. for Britain. Either a Deal Brexit, a Hard Brexit or a No Deal Brexit will bring negative effects in the short and medium terms for the U.K., the European countries, the U.S., Canada and the other members of the Commonwealth. Even before Brexit has been enforced, it slowed the economy of the U.K. in 1.3% in 2018. The implications in social, security and economic terms are multiple and complex. I believe some of them are unpredictable at this point.

Misinformation, Ignorance and An Unexpected Outcome

On June 23th, 2016, a narrow majority voted to leave the E.U. According to Thomas Kielinger, on the morning of June 24th, 2016, the most asked question on Google in the U.K. was “Who is the E.U.?” 1 Since that moment, the turmoil has grown and the question remains: giving that that “majority” didn’t even know what the E.U. was, did the U.K. wanted to ignore the continent and continue on its own? In keeping with Timothy Garton Ash (Oxford University) idea: “…this is just a continuation of British schizophrenia about Europe, because Britain will remain in Europe; where else otherwise?” 2 the British people are suffering the consequences of an episode of “delusions, hallucinations, trouble with thinking and concentration, and lack of motivation.” 3 This event is therefore, painful, disorienting and a risk to the national security of the British state.

A Manifestation of Frustration?

This analyst asks: Could the result of the referendum of 2016 represent the frustration of a whole nation, claiming for attention from its government? I believe that the answer is affirmative. The original idea of the British of becoming a partner of the E.U. was one of continuous progress and certainty for the people. The reality today corresponds more to a society submerged into the great inequalities that seem to characterize our times. The product of this referendum could well be the “catharsis” of a nation that waited for a divan to express its frustrations.

To Be or Not To Be… The question

Are we a part of Europe or not? This is precisely the riddle that has not only fueled the debate but also has accompanied the British people since its origins. Geographically Britain is in Europe. Ideologically, it is not. It is a neighbor (something like the case of Mexico in North America… it is a part of, but it is not; or Ukraine or Turkey in Europe, they are a part of, but they are not). The U.K. is not a part of the continent; that is a fact that makes its case unique… and perpetuates the disagreement. The English Channel is both, the link and the dividing line.

History… Against or For the Membership?

Since the Battle of Britain started on July the 10th, 1940 and which outcome was the death of over 40,000 people in the Islands, the perception of (and reality) of risk, makes an integral part of the collective British psyche. By 1945, when the European continent and also many British cities (like London itself) were destroyed, the British still had a functional government and an elevated sense of pride, two things that their continental neighbors lacked. Yes, the British nation was economically destroyed, but its national security was guaranteed at that point of history. That is the reason, the continental nations conceived a unified Europe.

One of the first politicians to invoke the idea as a peace enterprise was of all people, an English man: During the Congress of Europe, on May the 7th, 1948, Winston Churchill, declared: “The task before us at this Congress is not only to raise the voice of United Europe during these few days we are together. We must here and now resolve that in one form or another, a European Assembly shall be constituted which will enable that voice to make itself continuously heard and we trust with ever-growing acceptance through all the free countries of this Continent.” 4

Once France and West Germany pushed for the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (E.C.S.C.) in 1952, where six continental nation-states were the founders (France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg), “one Europe” took life. Then, the European Economic Community (E.E.C.) was formed in 1957, by the same six countries. Britain did not take part though; a sample of that “rollercoaster” I was referring to in the first paragraph… perhaps a reminiscence of the old imperial pride (beginning in the 17thCentury, Britain became the greatest colonial power in history). Even today, the Queen is the head of state of 16 countries.

The 1960s Stagnation of the British Economy, Sudden Interest and First Referendum.

In the early 1960s, the economy of the E.E.C. members had grown; not so the British one. This was the trigger for the U.K. to become interested in becoming a “member”. In 1961, the U.K. finally applied. France vetoed. In 1967, they tried again. France vetoed, again. Finally, The British changed the strategy and approached the Germans for help.

During the 1970s, the British economy continued suffering; the possibility of joining became a reality. The British people perceived the prospect only in commercial terms (an economic union), not in political (security) ones. In 1972, Britain was admitted in the E.E.C. and Britain reoriented its economic efforts towards the continent. In 1975, the first referendum on membership was carried out in Britain; 67% of the population voted to stay in.

A Super-state and the Immigrants Issue

Back in 1975, the people of Britain were not told that membership to the E.E.C. was more than a commercial one. Losing sovereignty by somehow becoming a part of a super-state was never mentioned. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister and supported a strong economic union, but when politics came into the scene, she drew her line (she opposed to the German reunification). Then in 1990, John Major became Prime Minister and British politics focused on gaining a primal role in the union (the E.U. was enforced in 1993). In 1994, in a symbolic gesture, the Queen traveled from London to Paris through the new tunnel (English Channel). However, not all British felt comfortable with the new closeness to the continent.

Then came the Euro affair; Britain stayed out and kept the British Pound as a symbol of its sovereignty, however, Britain was one of the first members to push for the opening of its labour market (for the people of Eastern Europe) and it was this immigration that started the misperceptions of the British; immigrants were “taking” away their jobs and traditions.

By the time David Cameron became Prime Minister (2010), the pressure was on. He wanted to stay within the E.U. and pushed for the 2016 referendum to stop the controversy. For the second time, the British voted to stay or to leave, but this time, a new economic reality and new immigrants, both of which represented a “loss of control”, imposed themselves. The fear factor took in and the rhetoric of “take back control” took hold. Suddenly the British people knew of the democracy and sovereignty implications. On that 23rdof June 2016, 72% of people allowed to vote did so; 52% voted to leave; 48% voted to stay and that question on Google exploded: “What is the E.U.?”

As Theresa May took power in 2016, reality settled in. Talks to leave began in Brussels in June 2017 but leaving has become a traumatic process with no end in sight.

No Way Out

Recently, authorities in the U.K. simulated a traffic predicament on the roads to measure and prevent the level of difficulties that leaving the E.U. will bring (the result showed a disastrous scenario), consumers have gone into panic mode and accumulated supplies as if a natural disaster was on its way (provoking artificial shortages of supplies), car manufacturers have announced plans to move production abroad, banks worry multiple deals will derail, etc.

As the political show goes on, clear complications have proved insurmountable issues (such as the Ireland-Northern Ireland border situation). As I write, no solution is in place. Theresa May’s proposed exit deal has been rejected three times already, multiple alternatives have also been rejected by the parliament and the idea that leaving the E.U. would be easy (as stated by John Redwood, a Conservative MP, in July 2016) has vanished. Only one thing seems to be clear at this moment: The decision of leaving the E.U. has stopped being a commercial one to become one of political importance. The controversy continues.

About the Author
Othon Leon

Othon Leon

Othon A. Leon is a research analyst at the Canadian Centre for Strategic Studies. A current student at the PhD program in Political Science at Concordia University, with three masters’ degrees from ITAM, Université de Montréal and HEC Montréal. He currently lectures in several universities around the world. His fields of research include International Relations and War Studies.

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  1. Kielinger, Thomas (2019). “A Nation on the Outside Looking in”. DocFilm, DW, aired on the 27th of March 2019.
  2. Ash, Timothy G. (2019). “A Nation on the Outside Looking in”. DocFilm, DW, aired on the 27th of March 2019.

  3. APA (2019). “What Is Schizophrenia?”., consulted on March the 31st, 2019.
  4. CVCE (2019). “Address given by Winston Churchill at the Congress of Europe in The Hague (7 May 1948)”., consulted on March the 31st, 2019.