Most questions about the future of Brexit, Britain and the EU remain unanswered. On June 23, 2016, the British people voted to leave the European Union. The consequences were predicted to be far-reaching for Britain, the EU, and the international community as a whole. The vote was tallied less than a year ago, and negotiations between the EU and Britain are still happening. The aftermath of the vote reveals a highly divided United Kingdom, embroiled in contentious debates about its future. Over at least the next two years, the British will have to decide how to restructure trade with the rest of Europe, whether Scotland and Northern Ireland will remain in the nation, and which candidates and ideals should lead and represent them.
It is important to note that not all regions of the United Kingdom voted the same way. England and Wales both voted majority for “Leave” (53.4 percent and 52.5 percent respectively). Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to “Remain” (62 percent and 55.8 percent respectively). In 2014, when Scotland decided to stay within the United Kingdom, many voters reasoned that independence would damage strong economic ties to the rest of Britain. Neil Irwin of the New York Times noted that “pro-independence Scots have argued that they will recapture some of the advantages of size by joining the European Union.” However, the Brexit vote showed that Scottish voters wanted to stay in the EU, and a second independence referendum remains possible.
Northern Ireland also fosters a strong sentiment of separation from the rest of the UK, as many Irish want to reunify Ireland. Vincent Boland of the Financial Times noted that “Sinn Fein, the Irish nationalist party that made big gains in an election in the north in March and has 23 of 158 MPs in the Dublin parliament, is going mainstream.” As evidenced through the voters, reunification appears to be becoming a real possibility. Huge portions of Northern Ireland’s GDP (up to 9 percent) originate from trade with Ireland and the rest of the EU, and experts say that losing this could deal a potentially devastating blow to an already recession-weakened economy. While talks of independence are still in their infancy, the EU has already publicly announced its willingness to accept an independent Scotland or Northern Ireland into its ranks. While nationalists command a large following, they face significant opposition from the rest of the UK, including many Scots and Northern Irelanders. Irish reunification is a contentious issue in Northern Ireland, and the Guardian reports that “successive opinion polls in the region have also shown a consistent majority in favour of staying within the UK rather than linking up with the Irish republic.” Reuniting the isle at this point seems impossible, especially without the support of the majority of Northern Irish.
Just because the UK is leaving the EU does not mean independence is clearly the right or easy plan of action. Scotland and Northern Ireland have profited massively from their affiliation with one of the most powerful economic forces on the face of the Earth. Irwin notes a significant amount of opposition to the concept of Scottish independence, stating that since the recession, Scotland has taken more taxes in the form of benefits than it has returned to the UK. Scotland’s separation from its close neighbor would also cause serious economic complications. Many businesses would have to cross an additional border, dealing with two different sets of laws for taxation, operation, and manufacturing, all of which would dissuade economic growth. Northern Ireland faces a very similar risk, as the Republic of Ireland is significantly less economically powerful and stable than the UK. Leaving Britain to reunite the isle may increase trade with the rest of Ireland but risks losing more assets from the UK.
One of the largest remaining questions following Brexit is how closely connected the UK will remain to EU trade. EU trade makes up a substantial amount of the UK’s total trading. EU members and countries with free trade agreements with the EU receive 63 percent of Britain’s goods exports, and much of this trade could be slapped with additional tariffs to dissuade other countries from leaving the EU. One possibility to reduce the economic damage of Brexit would be for the UK to join the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). However, not everyone agrees that the UK joining the EFTA is the best course of action. Patrick Wintour writes: “Eurosceptics have so far rejected [UK plans to join the EFTA] because membership requires acceptance of the principle of free movement and an external judicial body overseeing UK law.” Although it is unlikely that the UK would give up any sovereignty to the EU at this point, EFTA’s influence is quite impressive. As Wintour notes, EFTA members “have 27 free trade agreements covering 38 countries,” which could help mitigate economic damage from Brexit. The UK must decide how connected it wants to remain to the EU, and how much it is willing to give up to continue their relationship at all.
Theresa May called a general election earlier this year in the hopes of turning a slight conservative majority into a larger one. While the snap election is happening in June, Welsh local elections in early May proved predictive polling correct: conservatives won big. The BBC reported that “they gained more than 500 seats and seized 11 councils,” which are “the biggest gains by a governing party in a local election for more than 40 years.” Although the elections were not national, they left conservatives riding a high on large losses from the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and Labour. The BBC also noted that Labour still rests at a national vote share of approximately 27 percent, but UKIP has been reduced to 5 percent. Whoever wins the election must still continue with the Brexit process, but that is the only clear fact. Large gains by Labour are extremely unlikely but would likely completely change the UK’s position at the negotiation table. Even if the predicted outcome (a major conservative victory) occurs, May’s plans are anything but clear. She baffled many when she called the snap election, seeing as she had publicly promised seven times that she would not do so.
The UK will likely land somewhat on its feet after the dust settles around Brexit, although its international economic standing is likely to be damaged. Brexit will clearly damage national unity, especially in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but the possible repercussions of separating from the UK are likely larger than the benefits for now. The more trade that the UK retains with the EU, the less plausible these independence movements become. If the UK manages to negotiate its way to a better deal or even into the EFTA, the economic blow will definitely be softened. However, the entirety of the EU must agree on the terms of the UK’s exit, which will likely result in a tougher deal in order to dissuade other nations from pondering an exit as well. If the national trend continues, conservatives will gain a large hold on British politics for the next few years, following the current international trend of right-wing leadership but not giving too much power to far-right leaders. The months until March 2019 will be telling.
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