Three Months After Brexit, What’s Actually Going On?
Are we out of the EU, or what?
It’s a little over three months since the shock vote for Britain to leave the EU, followed by British politics completely falling apart before we were left with a new Prime Minister and a re-elected opposition leader. So now all that’s sorted, what’s up with Brexit?
Until this weekend not much had seemed to be happening besides Theresa May repeatedly saying that “Brexit means Brexit”, which is pretty confusing since many in the government still disagree on what Brexit actually does mean.
The vote to leave the EU didn’t simply mean the UK was out of the Union – trade deals and diplomacy don’t really work that way. Instead, it was left to the UK to trigger Article 50, a section of an EU treaty that sets out how members can withdraw. No one has ever done this before, and Britain still hasn’t started the process.
So why are we still in the EU?
Once Article 50 is triggered, a two-year timer starts on negotiations with remaining EU members to create new arrangements on everything from trade to immigration policy. If agreements aren’t made within two years, the exiting state is automatically out of the EU with no new provisions: not ideal, because Britain needs to trade with Europe if it doesn’t want its economy to run into at least a bit of trouble.
This time period can be extended, but only with the agreement of all remaining EU members. Whether or not this could happen is uncertain, since plenty of countries are mega-pissed with Britain deciding to leave in the first place, and the EU would have a lot of leverage over the UK in negotiations if there was a hard time limit.
Before the referendum, David Cameron said that he would trigger Article 50. He also said that he would remain as Prime Minister if the UK voted to leave, then said he would remain in parliament after he resigned as PM. In the end, he didn’t do any of these things. He didn’t trigger Article 50 before he resigned, and now he’s leaving parliament entirely.
This left the new Prime Minister Theresa May with the decision over when to start the actual process of Brexit.
Why hasn’t the government just triggered Article 50 and gotten it all over and done with?
At the Conservative Party Conference, May announced that Article 50 would be triggered by the end of March 2017, meaning that Britain should be out of the EU—whether or not any other deals are made—by 2019.
The key reason nothing has happened until recently is because many figures within the government disagree on what Britain’s relationship with the EU should be after Brexit. This may be surprising, since so many of them campaigned to leave the EU, but it seems like even those who wanted to leave had no shared plan on what to do next. Which is pretty bizarre.
It’s hard to negotiate when you don’t know what you want at the end, so the government is currently focused on figuring out what they’re actually aiming for, with the new deadline of March next year.
So what does Brexit look like?
Deciding on a goal for negotiations isn’t as easy as it sounds, since there is heated debate even inside the Conservative party.
The big sticking point is access to the single market, which sounds boring but is incredibly important. Members of the EU are able to trade goods and services without additional taxes or restrictions. This also includes the freedom of movement by EU citizens. There are also questions around policies ranging from environmental law to security and data sharing.
The problem for the UK is that if it wants to retain access to the single market, allowing businesses to trade with the EU without paying for access, it will need to continue to allow free movement. But many argue that the vote for Brexit was a vote for limiting EU immigration.
Can’t the government just reduce immigration?
Keeping access to the market while gaining controls over immigration is virtually a non-starter with the EU, but many British politicians continue to hold this up as an end goal.
If they were being serious, they would acknowledge that there is a trade-off to be made: either the UK continues to allow freedom of movement and retains single market access (raising the question of what the point of Brexit actually is, since that’s kind of the situation now), or it gains controls and is subject to new regulations and taxes on trade.
Right now, the Prime Minister appears to have indicated a preference for what people are calling a ‘hard’ Brexit, meaning that Britain would be out of the single market but would have greater control over EU immigration.
Yet even with this, there is a lot of uncertainty about how everything will unfold. Many within the government are worried about this approach, and business groups, other politicians and civil society organisations are calling for more detail before Article 50 is triggered.
This means there is a lot of work to be done between now and March, or Britain could be in for a rough ride after the two-year negotiating period. If talks aren’t complete by 2019—assuming Article 50 has been triggered—no one really knows what will happen.
It’s safe to say, though, that anyone who voted to leave the EU because they were sick of hearing about Europe is going to be unhappy for a long time: almost every policy issue in Britain will be tied to the UK/EU relationship for years to come.