On June 23, 2016, almost 52 percent of British voters voted to have the United Kingdom (UK) leave the European Union (EU), which it had belonged to for 45 years. Ever since that vote, the British government has struggled to articulate the conditions and seal the deal. They have until 11 p.m. on March 29, 2019.
Since the end of World War II, there has been global acceptance of the idea that trade agreements strengthen alliances and preclude conflicts, besides being good for business. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were created along with the United Nations in 1944, and were considered equally critical to promoting and protecting world peace.
The EU has grown from its beginnings as the European Coal and Steel Community, formed by six European countries in 1951, notably including West Germany, a wartime enemy but a Cold War ally. The UK was in fact, excluded from the group—its membership twice vetoed by France—until it joined the European Communities, the Common Market, in 1973.
At that time, it was a Conservative British government that pushed for membership, in order to enjoy the economic advantages and increased bargaining power of its competitors on the continent. When the Labour Party gained a majority in government, the first Brexit referendum was held on June 5, 1974, but at that time 67 percent of British voters voted to stay in.
And stay in they did, all through the Thatcher years, until in 1992 the Maastricht Treaty created the European Union. The Treaty was ratified by Parliament, but not by popular referendum, which followed the letter of British procedure but sowed the seeds of discontent with some of its population. In protest, a few new political parties came into being; one, the United Kingdom Independence Party, survived and grew and eventually forced the referendum in 2016.
As soon as the referendum results were announced, the British pound sank, as markets judged that leaving the EU would cost the British economy, in terms of growth and prosperity, as trade would become more costly and access to resources and bargaining power would diminish. Office space in London, which had long been the financial capital of Europe and was rivaling New York for the global title, suddenly became cheaper, as major banks talked of relocating to Frankfurt, Paris, or Dublin, and the English real estate bubble burst.
Then the exit negotiations began. While the British may have wanted a new normal, the leaders of the EU have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, that is, in not letting the British leave gracefully or with competitive advantages intact. For one, the loss of the trade alliance would cost the countries of the EU as well as Britain.
But the more compelling reason is that other countries may be tempted to follow suit. Much of the British discontent with EU membership arose not from policies around the trade of goods but around the free flow of labor and the burden of regulation. The same nationalist or anti-immigrant forces that prevailed in the UK have certainly stirred elsewhere in Europe, as have arguments for more national economic sovereignty. If other members see a plausible exit, it could mean the end of the trade and political alliance altogether.
There are several versions of a “hard” or “soft” exit and of post-Brexit reality on the bargaining table, such as the “Norway Model” or the “Canada Plus” or whether the terms will include a “backstop.” The differences address whether or not the UK will remain in the European Free Trade Association and thus have to abide by EU trade rules, or whether it will have a trade agreement with the EU as Canada does, or whether it will have an open border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
But any deal will diminish Britain’s role in Europe’s economic future, and the UK will be on its own—and thus in a weaker position—in cutting deals with emerging powers such as China. It is hard to see how, as the consequences of leaving becoming clearer, any real agreement can be palatable.
It may very well turn out that, while the British voted to leave the EU, when it comes down to doing so, the foreseeable consequences of that action have produced very cold feet. Possibly a new government could schedule a new referendum, and the lessons of the last three years would prevail upon the British people to stay calm and carry on—from within the EU.