As we continue to check in on Europe, British Prime Minister Theresa May is having a rather, should we say, eventful week, all thanks to Brexit, the upcoming British withdrawal from the European Union. During a phone call with US President Donald Trump last week, May was berated over a number of policy issues, including her handling of Brexit negotiations. Earlier this week, May seemed to be headed toward a major political victory, as two years of those often-stalled negotiations had led to a tentative deal with the European Union over how Britain will withdraw from the EU, a deal that May’s cabinet approved yesterday.
Yet as of writing this article, the PM faces a major crisis, as several cabinet members have resigned in protest to the deal, the government of Scotland (one of the nations that makes up the United Kingdom) has declared the current deal “dead,” and an increasing number of members of May’s own Conservative Party have called for a vote of no confidence, a procedure that could lead to the Parliament removing her from her position as Prime Minister. This is just the latest round of turmoil over Brexit, an issue that has not gotten much attention of late in the United States but which has been dominating news cycles and political debates in the United Kingdom for two years.
In short, Britain held a referendum in 2016 over whether to remain in the European Union or to leave, and narrowly voted for a British exit (thus, Brexit) from the EU, a result that surprised just about everyone, even those who voted to leave. Ever since then, the issue of Brexit has created a number of controversies and divisions, both within Britain and within the larger European Union. In order to understand why this is such a big and controversial deal, a bit of history is necessary.
The United Kingdom vs. and the European Union (that wasn’t a typo).
The organization that eventually developed into the European Union began after WWII as the European Coal and Steel Community, a block of six countries (France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) that agreed to jointly control these two key resources. These countries were concerned that enduring European rivalries would lead to a third World War, and sought to jointly control the resources that went into making weapons as a way to prevent this from happening.
The United Kingdom, despite its previous role as a Great Power that had been a key participant in these past European conflicts, opted not to join. Years later, when Britain changed its mind and sought membership in the European Economic Community (as the organization was known at the time), French President Charles de Gaulle twice vetoed the idea, showing that fighting on the same side in two world wars had not eliminated centuries of French-British rivalries. Eventually, Britain was able to formally join Europe in 1973. Two years, later, in the country’s first ever national referendum, two-thirds of British voters supported remaining in the European Economic Community. As the European Union involved, membership came to entail many things: free trade and coordinated economic policies across the member countries, open borders between European states (a policy that the UK was able to modify for is own borders), an elected European Parliament that exercises some level of legislative power over member states, and so on.
British but not European
Even while Britain was a member of the EU, its citizens remained uncertain about the arrangement. A recent survey conducted through Eurobarometer showed that of all EU member states, UK citizens were the most likely to identify only with their nation and least likely to identify primarily as Europeans. Why has the United Kingdom been so wary of European identity and attachments? The answer is multifaceted. On one level, the issues brought up by those who backed Brexit were twofold: an economic argument and an underlying (but often explicit) nativism and xenophobia concerning immigration.
Many British citizens and politicians felt that EU membership cost the country more economically than it brought in return (similar to US President Donald Trump’s view of international attachments generally), with the strong British economy subsidizing poorer or poorly run EU countries as Britain paid billions of pounds to the EU and moderated its economic policies to accommodate its partner nations. A number of dubious arguments were floated during the Brexit campaign; most infamously, Conservative Party politicians’ like MP Boris Johnson (who eerily mirrors Donald Trump in bluster and appearance – seriously, have we seen them in the same room together?) claimed that the UK “send[s] the EU £350m a week” and that that money could instead be spent to shore up the country’s National Health Service. Although such arguments ignore or downplay the economic benefits that integration into Europe brought in terms of trade and movement of people (leading almost all British economists to agree that Brexit will hurt the British economy), some British leaders argued that these benefits could be maintained while lowering the costs to the UK.
Another, more impactful motivation behind Brexit was British nationalism, tinged with nativism, racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia. Throughout Europe, white Christian majority populations have dealt with increased immigration from outside the continent, which has left many countries significantly more brown and Muslim than they were a few decades ago. This has contributed to a right-wing populism that has swayed many national elections in recent years. Europe’s policy of open borders within the EU has magnified the immigration “problem,” as immigrants who enter Europe through countries with more liberal immigration policies could subsequently travel to more restrictive nations. Britain, even though it has the most restrictive intra-Europe immigration policies within the EU, has been concerned about the effects that immigration is having on its society, and many saw withdrawing from the EU as a way of retaking control over Britain’s borders.
In a much broader and longer historical sense, Britain’s ambivalence about the European Union, and about its European identity more generally, is largely based on geography. In short, being an island has for centuries allowed Britain to remain somewhat aloof from the events happening in continental Europe (similarly, the United States’ location between two oceans allowed it to keep the rest of the world at arm’s length, as evident by US reluctance to engage in either world war). While the Protestant Revolution raged across Europe, bringing about wars of religion and radical changes in belief and worship, Protestantism in England arrived because of the King’s desire to divorce his wife (and marry his mistress), and the actual change within the English Church was moderate (although Britain did not completely skip over having religious wars). The English Channel limited invasion from the continent, even during WWII. While the various European Great Powers formed alliances against one another, Britain preferred to play the role of “balancer,” keeping its options open and shifting allegiance as needed to keep any one group of countries from becoming too powerful.
This idea of British uniqueness and separateness has endured to the present day. Having a special relationship (or a least believing in one) with the richest and most powerful nation in the world based on shared language and culture has also given Britain options in how closely it wants to rely on its Europeanness for power and prosperity. Massive disagreements, however, exist among the population concerning how wise it is to remain connected to or withdraw from European membership. Indeed, it’s a toss-up whether a second Brexit vote – something that several British politicians as well as the head of the EU council have supported – would result in a win for the “remain in Europe” option (even some of those who initially voted to leave the EU did so as a protest vote against the UK government in power at the time, assuming that an exit option would never pass).
Can Brexit Split Britain, and Europe, Apart?
Many others agree on Brexit in theory, yet disagree on the details: whether there should be a “soft Brexit” (formal exit from the EU but maintaining close economic and political ties to Europe) or a “hard Brexit” (a more significant break, which would leave the UK and its European neighbors to regard each other as they would any other foreign nations). Regional divisions are also important within the UK. The United Kingdom is a sovereign state made of four nations: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. For various reasons, Scotland and Northern Ireland value connection to Europe much more than England does, as noted in the regional differences in the Brexit vote. Indeed, the nature of the Brexit deal potentially threatens the Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland that ended decades of bloody conflict between Catholics and Protestants (in short, there’s worry that Brexit may hamper free movement between Northern Ireland and the rest of the Irish island, which is an independent Republic and part of the EU; this movement is a key part of the peace deal). The Brexit deal could also lead to Scotland voting to leave the United Kingdom, something that came reasonably close to happening in a Scottish referendum in 2014.
The idea of Britain leaving the European Union is also potentially destabilizing for the EU; there have been talks of Frexit and other withdrawals as well (although the chaos over Brexit may be serving as a deterrent to other European nations thinking of exit). Despite all these problems, Theresa May has insisted on pushing ahead with Brexit as the expressed will of the British people, even at the possible cost of her own job and the potential for the Conservatives to lose power, much less the potentially disintegrating effect it could have in the UK and in Europe. It’s possible that a relatively soft Brexit will create only moderate practical change iin the UK and Europe, but it is also feasible that the decision to leave the EU could have a massive impact on both British identity within the nations of the United Kingdom and European identity across the continent.