By Nicholas Nalbantian
Prior to the decision to leave the European Union, David Cameron, then the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, attempted something new in EU politics. In January 2013 Cameron promised to negotiate a “new settlement” with the EU, including winning an array of concessions from Brussels in order to convince the British people to remain in a reformed EU. On February 20, 2016, Cameron finalized a deal with the (now dubbed) EU-27 who, even at the time, seemed incredulous of the idea that a state would leave the EU. Nonetheless, Cameron managed to secure some changes for the UK, chiefly that bloc workers will be limited to “in-work” social welfare benefits for four years and a pledge that the UK will not be responsible for the maintenance of the Euro, the European common currency. Of existential significance, Cameron also got a pledge that the UK would be excluded from any commitment “to an ever closer union” and the introduction of a “red-card” mechanism to block EU Commission proposals that were not to Britain’s liking, provided 55% of national parliaments agree.
With the UK’s vote to leave, these concessions by the EU-27 will not be implemented. However, as anti-EU sentiment grows in Europe, it will be up to Brussels to consider whether Brexit could have been avoided if Cameron’s moves for reform had been taken more seriously. Although any future EU reform may be a forlorn hope as Guy Verhofstadt’s (leader of the Liberal MEPs) decision to make a deal with Antonio Tajani’s center-right European People’s Party (EPP), which won Tajani the presidency of the European Parliament. The EPP was the same political party in power from 2009 – 2011 during the fallout of the Great Recession. The EPP now controls all three leadership roles in the EU with Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission and Donald Tusk as President of the European Council. The text of the agreement between the EPP and the Liberals, both pro-EU parties, reads like a diagnosis that the remedy for the EU’s woes is “more Europe.” The move is also seen as a rebuke of Eurosceptics and Socialist parties who had hoped for greater dialogue on systemic EU reform.
On June 23, 2016, the United Kingdom held a referendum to decide whether or not the country should remain a part of the European Union. In the early hours of the morning on June 24 2016, the results emerged as a 52% to 48% victory for the Leave campaign, Prime Minister David Cameron would resign later that same day. The 71.8% turnout for the referendum vote was the highest turnout experienced in a British election since 1992. In the wake of David Cameron’s resignation, Theresa May, the former Home Secretary and long-time Member of Parliament, became the second woman to serve as Prime Minister on July 13, 2016.
The referendum to leave the European Union would be the first time that a nation state has voted to leave the European Union, thereby reducing its membership to 27. While Greenland voted to leave in 1985, it also remained a member of the Kingdom of Denmark so its relations with the EU are more akin to European overseas territories, like French Polynesia, than a true withdrawal. With the EU often described as the pinnacle of multinational integration, the significance of the UK’s decision to quit the bloc cannot be overstated.
An almost immediate consequence of the Brexit vote, aside the falling value of the pound, was the threat to the relationship of the UK states. On October 2, 2016, the Belfast High Court heard legal challenges whether the UK Government needs the consent of the Northern Irish Assembly to leave the EU, it was rejected. In a similar vein, Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, announces that a second Scottish Independence referendum is likely by 2020, if not earlier. Perhaps most damaging of all is the threat to the Good Friday Agreement, with the Brexit vote splitting along sectarian lines, with 85% of Catholics voting remain, and the unsettled issue of the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Spilling into 2017
With little consideration for “Years in Review,” the events of Brexit continued into this year and it would be inaccurate not to mention some of the more recent developments. The UK High Court, one of the Senior Courts of England and Wales, rule in November that the May government could not invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty without Parliament’s consent. The UK Supreme Court confirmed that decision in January. Despite some difficulties with the House of Lords, Parliament has now authorized Prime Minister May to invoke Article 50. As of printing, May is expected to trigger Article 50 on Wednesday, 29 March, but with elections soon European officials suggest formal talks won’t start until June.