On March 29 last year, Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty was triggered by the British Prime Minister Theresa May. The official exit letter which was handed to European Council president Donald Tusk created a significant historical precedent and led the UK and the EU towards an unknown world. What is the history behind these events and what is going to happen in a year’s time?
Early roots of Brexit
The roots of British Euroscepticism can be traced back to the early 1950s. Opponents of European integration have existed in Britain since the early stages of the EU – back then ECSC. They had different arguments and different names, but their agenda was almost the same: to oppose British engagement in the Franco-German project. This opposition was clearly established within British political elites and parties, and gained a spot in different executive bodies.
Nevertheless, the United Kingdom had joined the European Communities in 1973 after a long negotiation period in which the country had to fight against French resistance to welcome British people in the Communities. By the early 1970s, the British government actively used the European integration process as an instrument of crisis management to overcome struggles in the country. Membership to the EC was solely seen as a source of better industrial competitiveness and foreign investments.
First Brexit campaign in the 1970s
At the same time, it is undeniable that the position of anti-Marketeers, a movement against the entry to the EC, was quite strong within political elites in the 1970s. The movement had two main winning arguments. First, in 1972, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson committed himself to a re-negotiation of the terms regulating the membership to the Communities. Second, Wilson was committed to hold a consultative referendum on possible membership. Anti-Marketeers took advantage of these elements to start their ‘No vote’ campaign against membership to the EC and to undermine the Prime Minister’s attempt to support participation in the Communities.
The opposition group of that time was a coalition of different political parties and groups. The National Referendum Campaign (NRC), led by Neil Marten, Douglas Jay, Christopher Smith and Richard Body, represented the ‘No Vote’ campaign. The movement’s main points were to restore the Parliament’s exclusive right to pass laws and raise taxes, to make free trade between Britain and the rest of the world fall under British internal rules and not community ones, and to function as a coordinating body for its ‘newly created’ member groups. However, the NRC Campaign proved to be a failure, since the movement had no concrete alternative to offer and fell back on the argument that the EC was less important than other cooperative organizations.
Moreover, pro-European forces with the Prime Minister’s support had a few advantages over their rivals. First, the Prime Minister decided about the wording of the questions and the timing of the referendum. Second, the campaigns’ financial support influenced the outcome. The ‘Yes Vote’ campaign gained nearly one and a half billion pounds, the largest sum ever accumulated for an electoral campaign. The ‘No Vote’ campaign on the other hand was run on only 250 000 pounds. Third, among pro-European supporters there were different figures from business, politics, the media, and even from the church, who placed emphasis on the economic prosperity which Britain could gain from membership to the EC. On top of this, they also stressed the possible negative consequences of a withdrawal.
The Referendum was held in June 1975 and the British population supported the government by voting to remain in the EC. The result worsened the image of sceptics and showed their weaknesses. Anti-Marketeers lost the trust of the British public and politicians. Nevertheless, this group triggered the rise of a Eurosceptic movement and established populist approaches towards European integration across political parties and cultures, even influencing certain executive bodies.
David Cameron’s pledge to a referendum
After ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, the Conservative Party, and more precisely its leader David Cameron, gave a pledge to hold a referendum in 2009. The Party’s agenda was directed to a referendum lock, a full opt-out from the Charter of Fundamental Rights, and greater protection against EU meddling into the UK’s criminal justice system. The Party believed that the exemptions previously negotiated by Labour were insufficient. Moreover, the repatriation of social and employment policy had been a long-standing demand of the Conservatives.
David Cameron’s speech on EU membership in 2009 opened a debate about the possibility of abandoning the Union and triggered a countrywide agenda for withdrawal. In this pronouncement he set out an agenda for EU reform, stating that if these reforms would not be implemented, the British government would support the exit of the UK from the EU. The former Prime Minister gave more power to the UKIP’s and Conservative hard Eurosceptics’ rhetoric, challenging at the same time pro-European cabinet proponents who perceived the commitment towards this referendum as a threat.
Nevertheless, the biggest difference between the 1975 and the current ‘No Vote’ campaign was the financial and public support. Many experts were holding themselves to the idea that a vote against preserved membership in the Union was quite unlikely to happen. In the meantime, according to newspapers and opinion polls, a growing trend of skepticism towards the EU had existed among the British public since the early 1990s. But no governing parties had been able to overcome this crisis, making their policies ineffective. None of the commitments made by the Conservatives appeased populist voters and eventually it resulted in Brexit. Also, the financing of the ‘Leave’ campaign was very significant, since it was backed especially by businesses. It received approximately 17.6 million pounds, whereas the ‘Remain’ campaign received 14.3 million pounds from donations.
Recent history behind the trigger
On 23 June 2016, the Brexit referendum registered a 71.8% voter’s turnout and the majority of British citizens voted to leave the European Union. The victory of Eurosceptics was extremely tight (51.9% to 48.9% of votes) and to some extent unpredictable. The majority of politicians, people and academics believed that Brexit wouldn’t happen. As a result, the reactions following the referendum shed doubt on the viability of the country’s exit from the Union.
Another element which made the Brexit process even more complicated was the resignation of the British Prime Minister at that time, David Cameron, who gave up his mandate the day after the Eurosceptic victory. He left the Party, the government, and the country in deep shock and was not able to take responsibility for his promises and ambitious plans. Therefore, it took the UK almost 10 months to activate the official process to leave the Union.
A post-trigger year – what to expect?
As can be seen from the development curve of Brexit, this process should not be described as new or unexpected for the elites. However, no one ever truly expected that it was going to happen. Most of the promises and commitments were made during Theresa May’s speech in Lancaster House in London on 17 January 2017.
She started her speech stating the need to restore national control over laws and to end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Britain. In the interim, government papers reinforced the same idea. Nevertheless, the transition agreement between the UK and the EU identifies several situations in which the jurisdiction of the ECJ will continue to prevail over British law during the transitional phase. The court’s role after that time remains an unresolved issue.
The second point of May’s speech is related to immigration control. The Prime Minister underlined that the EU Free Movement Directive will no longer apply, and migration will be regulated by national law. Remarkably, the transition agreement states that EU citizens arriving in the UK before 31 December 2020 and Britons going to the continent will continue to enjoy the same rights and guarantees as those arriving before Brexit.
The third commitment stated by the Prime Minister is related to citizens’ rights. Theresa May insisted that Britain would not unilaterally move to protect the rights of EU citizens in the UK until the same rule will be applied to UK citizens in the EU. There was a general belief that both parties would be able to support a reciprocal commitment, whereas recently citizens’ groups noted that the provision which guarantees freedom of movement for Britons in Europe had been removed from the final text of the Brexit deal. This situation requires further clarification and is actively discussed by many British MEPs.
Another important point highlighted by May’s Lancaster speech relates to the contribution to the EU budget. The Prime Minister underlined that no significant sums will be given by the country in the framework of the EU budget. However, as promised, the UK will continue to pay until the end of the current budget in 2020. On top of that, the country will donate for EU liabilities acquired before the end of 2020 and due in the future.
The very sensitive issue of the Irish borders remains unresolved. The negotiations led the parties to agree that there would be “no physical infrastructure” at the border. Nevertheless, the UK’s proposals for technical solutions are still far from being implemented. Moreover, it is too early to say if the full agreement will come into force acknowledging the recent British rejection of the EU’s plan for regulatory alignment across the island of Ireland.
Another element which deserves special attention in this analysis is the negotiation of the UK’s own trade agreements. Theresa May acts as a strong advocate of tariff-free trade with Europe and believes in frictionless cross-border trade. However, for the EU governing bodies this plan seems impossible. The EU’s recent trade negotiating guidelines put the necessity of checks and controls in the first place. Frictionless cross-border trade becomes unreal in these circumstances. In the interim, a part of the transition deal states the preservation of the single market benefits for a certain period. In the “implementation” period, which comes into force afterwards, Britain will be able to sign and ratify new trade deals.
Last but not least come the EU fishing policies. A British desire to leave the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy in 2019 will not be met. The transition deal clearly shows that the EU would resist any renegotiation of fishing quotas during the transition period. The UK must follow the CFP until the end of 2020, and it will be only discussed during the 2019 talks.
A year after the Brexit decision was taken, the country’s real exit from the EU seems far from realization. Political leaders need to agree on many controversial topics and new issues constantly appear. The current situation will never satisfy neither the UK, nor the EU and will raise many questions and concerns. Can both sides agree to soften terms in order to relax negotiations and to reduce the harm caused by Brexit? This remains an open question for which we must wait another year to possibly answer.
Author: Irina Kruhmalova