Brexit Day in London: A New Chapter for Britain and Europe
LONDON — Brexit came and went. The red, white, and blue of the Union Jack as well as the blue and gold stars of the Flag of Europe could be seen across clothing, banners and buildings surrounding London’s Parliament Square. As 11 p.m. approached, crowds of Leavers and Remainers outside the Houses of Parliament swelled into the thousands. Despite Big Ben remaining silent due to ongoing restoration underway, revelers counted down the time with pre-recorded bongs from the famous bell. Brexit had arrived, as did a new chapter in British history.
The United Kingdom officially left the European Union (EU) on Friday, January 31 after more than three years of intense debate, scrutiny and uncertainty. It follows an early Parliamentary election held in December 2019, where the Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, achieved a landslide victory against the Jermey Corbyn’s Labour Party. Last minute delays surrounding EU citizens’ rights in the UK did little to derail the Brexit process, as the British Parliament overwhelmingly passed the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. This was followed quickly by Queen Elizabeth II giving her Royal Assent, and with the European Parliament passing its own Withdrawal Agreement as well.
Despite the fan-fair, post-Brexit British life remains relatively unchanged. Stores remain stocked, trains and other transportation networks continue to travel between the UK and the Continent, and British life moves onward. As part of the Withdrawal Agreement, the UK entered into a “transition period” set to expire December 31, 2020. Until then, EU rules and regulations continue to apply. However, Britain no longer finds itself with a seat at the discussion table to set these rules.
During this period, Britain will need to negotiate a number of deals and agreements regarding trade, security, education, citizenship, and a host of other issues. New agencies and governmental departments, previously managed by the EU, will also need to be established to help coordinate these future relationships. After years of decline, since the Brexit referendum in 2016, the number of civil servants has already increased by approximately 35,000. The Institute for Government projects that by April 2020 over 25,000 civil servants will be directly working on Brexit related issues, up from 7,000 just two years prior. This increased level of bureaucracy is unseen since the end of World War II.
Though Brexit is here, uncertainty remains ever present in Britain. Paramount is the future of UK-EU relations once the transition period concludes. In 2018, Britain’s trade with the EU counted for 49% of the UK’s total trade value. A scenario where both parties fail to reach an agreement could have disastrous and far reaching effects on the British economy. Other nations around the world, including the United States, India, and China, have expressed interest in trading and investing in the UK. Yet these talks have so far failed to produce any substantive deals.
This further raises the issue on which direction the UK will align itself following the transition period. That is, whether it will pursue a more Eurocentric or Americentric foreign policy going forward. Signs seem to indicate that Britain is aiming for the latter, though recent disagreements between Prime Minister Johnson and President Trump over China’s Huawei plans to build a portion of Britain's 5G network indicate a growing shift in relations.
How the UK will deal with Northern Ireland is also of critical importance throughout the Government. Since the Republic of Ireland gained its independence in 1921, various forces within the Republic and Northern Ireland sought to unify the island, usually by violent means. ‘The Troubles’ only came to an end in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement. In it, the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland was eliminated. However, Brexit has thrown this peace into question as Britain has indicated that it will be leaving the EU’s single and common markets. This means that in order for tariffs and other trade duties to be applied, a border will need to be enforced. Currently, plans that would prevent such a border, including the Irish Backstop, have failed to become policy. This raises the prospects of renewed violence or the secession of Northern Ireland from the UK into the realm of possibility.
Moreover, the short timeframe for negotiations is likely to see many problems go unsolved, let alone in the beginning phases of discussion. In context, the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETU) between the EU and Canada took years to negotiate and sign, and is still not in full effect until all 27 EU states ratify the agreement. The notion that the UK will be able to do the same in only 11 months is highly irrational amongst many commentators. While there are mechanisms in place to extend the transition period, Prime Minister Johnson has stated that he will not seek one and has written this into the Withdrawal Agreement.
Brexit is no longer a possibility, but rather a fact of reality. It seems as though it has reached its fever pitch for now, with many across the political spectrum simply fed up with the issue. Yet, as negotiations get underway, it is safe to assume that the debates will only reignite in intensity.