I posted this cartoon (with sincere apologies to cartoonist Sidney Harris) over on Facebook, and an American friend said they’d been trying to follow some of the Brexit news, but frankly it was all a bit confusing (and as if there’s not enough confusion to sort through in the States), so I wrote a very brief primer and answered some follow-up questions, all of which got a nod of approval from some British friends, so I’m going to post it here, too, for those who are baffled but would like to try to understand a little better. :)
The Brexit Vote & Article 50
In June 1016, the United Kingdom held an advisory referendum vote on whether they as a unit should leave the EU. It narrowly passed, to the shock of absolutely everybody, especially those who voted to leave under the assumption the referendum would fail but wanted to lodge a protest against the government in general. This departure immediately got nicknamed “Brexit”.
In order to actually leave the EU, Britain had to trigger an article in the Lisbon Treaty, an EU-wide initiative, that allows a member state to leave the union. This article is known as Article 50. British Prime Minister Teresa May invoked it on 29 March 2017; the United Kingdom leaves the EU two years from that date, like it or lump it. There are, at the time of typing this, eight weeks until Brexit happens.
The UK believes that there are currently negotiations going on about how gracefully Brexit will happen. (They’re wrong. The negotiations are over, and have been for some time.) They currently have three options: the deal, which means “it will go extremely badly”; No Deal, which means “it will go mind-blowingly, incredibly, unbelieveably, staggeringly badly”; and revoke Article 50, which means “never mind, this is a terrible idea and we’re not going to do it.” No one appears to be seriously considering the final option, which means staying in the EU, although the EU has indicated repeatedly that they will pretend this All Never Happened as long as Article 50 is revoked before midnight, 29 March 2019. However, Article 50 has to be actively revoked; they cannot just let the clock run out and say “whoops, we didn’t mean it, we’re gonna stay in!”, although it appears that many British people wrongly believe that’s what will happen in case of a “no deal” Brexit.
Once the clock ticks over to March 30th, if Britain wishes to change their mind, they’ll have to reapply to join the EU, which will almost certainly and with good reason lose them every bit of the special, favored status that they’ve maintained over the past forty years (like keeping the British pound as its currency, among many, many, many other things).
There are obviously huge massive amounts more to it, economic devastation to Britain, huge economic knock-on effects across Europe, surreal levels of difficulty with customs and trade agreements and food and medical supplies and anything else you can imagine, but at the most basic level, that’s what we’re looking at.
So Why In God’s Name Is It Happening?
On one level Brexit is almost identical to what’s going on in the States. The Tory political party (re: GOP) has laid all their bets on the percentage of their supporters who are actual Leavers (Wall supporters) because without that percentage, they lose power.
So they can’t back down without losing political power and they have huge amounts of personal profit retained or made by either maintaining the status quo (see: GOP Senate) or by actually leaving (tax havens, etc; again, think GOP Senate). It’s exactly the same situation. The details are different, but the situation is the same. And not sound like a paranoid conspiracy theorist, but both scenarios are literally exactly what Russia paid for.
The Irish Border
The thrust of the thing with the Irish border is that the DUP, who are the tiny, hard-right-wing, pro-United-Kingdom, Northern Irish political party currently propping up the Tory government, refuse to accept any kind of border agreement that lies outside of the physical island of Ireland, like, in the Irish Sea, for fear it will help movement toward a united Ireland.
In the meantime, the Good Friday Agreement, negotiated and supported with the help of the EU and which ended the ongoing sectarian war between Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics (“the Troubles”) here in Ireland, means that there *cannot* be a hard border (with check points, customs checks, passport control, etc) between the North of Ireland and the Republic. The backstop basically means there’s no internal border until post-Brexit trade agreements (which could take years, even decades) have been settled on.
The thing that really horrified me about the backstop was that when it was announced, it really almost literally read “So we’ll put in this backstop, and then a miracle will happen, and then it’ll all be fine.” I mean, I read the agreement several times when it was published in December 2017 and it’s really astonishing magical thinking. But the DUP hates the backstop, half of the British MPs (congresspeople) think Ireland should stop making such a fuss and just exit the EU along with them so THEY HAVE no more problems and don’t understand why Ireland is being so obstreperous because it’s not like England has ever done anything mean to Ireland(!), and the Brits keep saying “We can get a better deal on our exit” despite the EU saying in no uncertain terms that they’re really quite done negotiating.
Follow-up Questions From The Audience
Is [Teresa] May [Britain’s current Prime Minister] a Leaver or a Stayer? Has she been handed a raw deal and is making the best of it?
Ironically enough, May was a Stayer, but has ended up in charge of Leaving.
I think suggesting May’s making the best of a bad deal is unnecessarily generous. She could have refused to invoke Article 50 or pointed out that the Brexit referendum was advisory, not binding, and that she was not going to lead the country into this shit show, or, indeed, simply not entered into a coalition with a bunch of Catholic-loathing misogynistic racists in the form of the DUP and therefore not become PM or had to deal with this whole question at all. But holding power was too tempting to pass up, and here we are.
What about Scotland? Do they want to stay in the EU?
Both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay in, as units. Wales and England voted to leave, as units. Everyone assumes that if Brexit actually happens (and there’s no evidence it won’t), there will be an almost-immediate referendum held in Scotland regarding declaring their independence from the UK. There are some loopholes (they need a central bank, which they don’t currently have because they’re part of the UK, for example), but given that the LAST referendum, a handful of years ago, came very near to passing, and that the EU has made positive noises about the potential of Scotland’s application, it’s to be assumed that they will succeed in their referendum and apply for EU member state status.
I mean, this also opens the question of what happens if they declare their independence, because I can’t really imagine England sending an army up to Hadrian’s Wall, but at this point, God Alone Knows. And don’t get me started on Gibraltar.
Nobody has a clue what’ll happen in the North of Ireland, although poll last year indicated that for the first time in history there’s close to a majority willing to consider unification as an option. The romantic in me has great hopes for that result, but there are enormous numbers of emotional, historical, religious and political hurdles to clear before it happens. In the meantime, the Republic considers Northerners to be citizens of the Republic already, and over the past two years so many people from the North (and from the island containing England, Scotland and Wales) have applied for their Republic-of-Ireland passports (because having them means they’ll still be able to travel freely around the EU) that the passport people have repeatedly run out of applications.
It’s a total shitshow. It’s very exciting to be an American in Ireland who has as much emotional investment in the mess over here as the mess over there, and by “very exciting” I mean “the absolute worst”. :/