Brexit is playing out like any other divorce – spats and squabbles between the UK and EU. It remains to be seen if it will be remotely close to amicable.
On June 23 2016, the UK voted to leave the EU bloc. On March 29 2017, the UK Government is set to invoke Article 50. The triggering of Article 50 is a legal requirement for any member state that seeks to leave the EU. Once invoked, the EU and the UK will officially start the formal process of negotiating the country’s withdrawal from the institution.
The triggering of Article 50 will not be a seamless task for Prime Minister Theresa May. On a domestic level, she faces a polarized political landscape, and must also ultimately deal with negotiations from EU institutions, including the 27 countries that are currently members.
The process for the UK officially leaving the EU will be a long drawn out process, and at present EU leaders have expressed their desire for talks to be concluded within a timescale of 18 months. Following negotiations, a draft deal will be submitted to the European Council, and agreement must be reached by other EU members, and ratified by the democratically elected European Parliament. Until the UK officially leaves the EU, it is subject to EU law and treaties.
While Theresa May publicly appears positive with regard to the Brexit process, there have been several reports provided that indicate the process could take years. For example, toward the end of 2016, the BBC reported that Sir Ivan Rogers, the former UK ambassador to the EU, privately advised Minister’s of the UK Government that Brexit could take a decade to conclude. In January of this year, Sir Rogers resigned from his post. This announcement led to a wave of concern, especially from opponents of May who have expressed their opinion that the UK Government must fully acknowledge and embrace the complexities of the country leaving the EU. Nick Clegg, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats and former Deputy Prime Minister of the UK, described Roger’s departure as a “blow to the Government’s Brexit plans” and a “spectacular own goal”.
The UK’s political landscape is messy and divisive. While the UK Government has ruled out Scotland holding another independence referendum in the near future, the First Minister of Scotland is not backing down on calling for one. Negotiations with regard to Brexit are more than likely to coincide with an increased talk of a Scoexit. If one word could be used to describe Brexit, it would be “uncertainty”.
While political leaders across the country and the rest of the EU are resolutely engaging in conversations with regard to the UK-wide referendum last June, millions of citizens and residents are anxiously wondering what the end outcome will be. Behind campaign slogans, calls for Scottish independence, impassioned speeches in parliaments, and flag waving, there are millions of people who are wondering what Brexit will mean for bread-and-butter-issues, and their own individual lives. Business owners, especially small business owners, are worrying about how the UK divorcing from the EU will impact trade flows. There is also the anxiety surrounding threats and proposals from multinational companies to reduce their investment in a post-Brexit UK. The globalized bank, HSBC, have reported that some of their operations may be removed from London to France. This will not just be a case of rearranging the furniture, but could ultimately result in some job losses, or workers being faced with the situation of moving country in order to keep their job.
Small businesses, however, do not have the same options at their disposal as multinationals. Many small business owners have weighed in on Brexit and outlined their concerns. For example, such proprietors are conscious of any decline in demand for their products or services, plus how their profits will be affected by fluctuations in the sterling to euro exchange rate. Moreover, many small enterprises in the UK receive EU funding, to help boost their economic growth and development. As part of the negotiations and deal making, it is critical that political leadership in the UK address these concerns, and also consider how to cope with a gap in EU funding that currently numerous businesses benefit from. Another sector that often gets forgotten about are the lives of those who receive income directly and indirectly from elected members. Not only are 73 UK Members of the European Parliament set to lose their jobs, but their staff in constituency offices, including in Brussels and Strasbourg, are also affected. Job losses not only affect the bank balances of people, but leads to a reduction in spending, saving, and investing.
Irrespective of whether or not citizens voted to leave, remain, or to abstain, Brexit will have a serious impact on Britain’s social, economic, and political fabric. It is also unknown what consequences the UK leaving the EU will have on the estimated 1.2 million British nationals who currently reside in another EU country. Moreover, there is also uncertainty over the residency rights of EU nationals who live in the UK. Shortly after the EU referendum vote, the BBC reported that there are around 2.9 million EU nationals living in the UK, and around 75% of those are in employment. It cannot be underestimated the degree of panic that has swept across the UK, with many EU nationals fearing living in a hostile environment, while being concerned if they will be allowed to remain in the country. The UK Government is receiving significant pressure from a multitude of voices to absolutely make sure they protect the rights of EU nationals, and to recognize the sheer amount of concern. A recently published article from Reuters, has detailed the opinions and life experiences of two EU nationals in the UK. Not only has it been reported that the application to apply for permanent residency is heavily bureaucratic, but there is also concern over how private family lives will be affected. There are plenty of households in the UK where one, or both parents, are a citizen of another EU country, but their children were born in the UK.
Theresa May is carrying a lot of weight on her shoulders — and the world is watching. Once Article 50 is invoked, the clock will start to tick, but it is unlikely that any deals and finalized negotiations will be known for a long time. In the meantime, citizens and residents within the UK and across the EU are facing serious crossroads. With such a polarized society, including facing other global pressures, May is steering a very difficult ship that Admiral Horatio Nelson would probably not envy.