It was early summer, the 23rd day of June 2016, when the British people took to the polls to vote in a referendum on whether the United Kingdom should remain or leave the European Union. Borrowing from the Greek Grexit campaign to leave the EU, the word Brexit, which denotes a British exit from the European Union, was born. While it is true that populism found an audience on the global stage in 2016, at the core of the populist surge is partly a rational response to clear political failures of the establishment. Brexit was by and large forceful working class revolt, fueled by anti-immigrant currents and resentment of the ultra rich nesting in the pockets and thralls of the political elites, culminated in a stunning upset at the ballot box.
Brexit has become the first case of an EU member deciding to withdraw from the Union. Following the pro-Brexit vote in the June 2016 referendum, Prime Minister David Cameron resigned and Theresa May took his position. Under her leadership, the government took nine months to finally trigger Article 50 of the EU treaty to start the formal withdrawal from the European Union. The letter sent on March 29th started the two-year process of negotiations on the particularities of the relationship between the UK and EU after the exit.
Two primary policy arguments that were put forward in the Brexit debate concerned the limited role of UK in decision-making at the EU level and the undermining effect of EU law and institutions on the legal, political and economic sovereignty.
The United Kingdom has an insufficient say in the development of European-wide policies in Brussels. The disproportionality to the UK’s population and economic significance is especially acute when one observes the numbers of British nationals employed in European institutions. For instance, they only account for 5,4% of policy influencing roles at the European Commission, which is in high contrast to the British accounting for 12.5% of the EU’s total population and 14.5% of its economy (second largest after Germany).
This lack of influence on developing policies within the European Union has been among the reasons behind the rise of legal tools that increasingly undermine both British national sovereignty and the parliament’s sovereignty in particular. Especially following the most recent renegotiation and enactment of EU’s fundamental treaties, commonly referred to as ‘Lisbon treaty’, the power of decision-making in Brussels besides sovereign national interests has grown exponentially. In particular, sovereignty is challenged by the increased role of qualified majority voting in the Council of Ministers to the detriment of unanimous voting and the ability to use veto rights. At the moment, only 55% of the member states can decide on most policy questions with little possibility of opt-outs for disagreeing members.
Analysis of why it happened
By and large, the debate on the relationship with the European Union reflected internal British policies rather than specific stances on foreign policy. More precisely, the vote mirrored the anti-establishment sentiment and nostalgia for Old Britain. The Leave campaign was built around such messages as bringing back the Britain of people’s memories, taking back control from Europe, and empowering working class people. Leave supporters were also strongly motivated with attitudes against migration to the UK that they [often mistakenly] associated it with the membership in the European Union. The vote to leave was typically cast by a conservative who felt they are defending their country and their traditions from migrants and foreign influence.
In contrast to ideological and sentiment-based pro-Brexit arguments, the arguments against exit had a stronger economics element to it. The uniformity of economic policies, taxation practices, banking regulations and labor laws has benefited British businesses and consumers. The lifting of barriers to market access in Continental Europe allowed British enterprises to compete in established and emerging markets of such large countries as Germany, France and Poland. EU law also enabled companies from various EU countries to offer cheaper and higher-quality services and goods to British consumers. EU’s environmental and social policies have boosted labor protection, energy efficiency, and the share of clean energy in the UK.
The single market provided British people and businesses with four freedoms: free movement of persons, services, goods and capital. Millions of UK citizens have used the opportunities to travel, study, work and reside throughout the European Union. It was often due to the European Union has facilitated these rights and opportunities through funding for such study programs as Erasmus, academia exchanges and facilitating access of consumers to safe and affordable travel options.
The British exit from the European Union is irreversible. The relationship between the UK and the European Union will have to through fundamental changes following a complicated negotiation process. The leave vote was largely the result of internal political dynamics in the United Kingdom. The remain camp focused on pointing out economic and regulatory advantages of the current membership in the European Union.
- Freudenstein, Roland. 2015. “Brexit. Six Ways It Will Fundamentally Change The EU.”. Martenscentre.EU. http://www.martenscentre.eu/sites/default/files/publication-files/brexit-six-ways-it-will-fundamentally-change-eu.pdf
- “Qualified Majority. Europa: Summaries of EU Legislation”. 2017. Europa.EU. http://europa.eu/legislation_summaries/glossary/qualified_majority_en.htm
- Robertson, Nic. 2016. “Brexit: Why Are Brits Thumbing Their Noses?”. CNN. http://edition.cnn.com/2016/06/24/europe/brexit-aftermath-robertson/
- Techau, Jan. 2016. “The Fundamental Flaws of Brexit Backers”. Carnegie Europe. http://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/?fa=63370.