In the lead-up to the 2016 referendum, the idea of Brexit was presented in relatively simple terms; it meant leaving the European Union and all its institutions. Ever since the “leave” result, however, confusion has abounded over what Brexit actually means. Prime Minister Theresa May was elected with the slogan “Brexit means Brexit” in a post-referendum snap election, but the process continues to drag on, and many are wondering whether the U.K. will end up leaving the EU in anything but name.
Theresa May invoked Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty in March 2017, officially notifying the EU of Britain’s intention to leave the union eight months after the leave vote. She also created a new Department for Exiting the European Union to manage the negotiations, although the U.K.’s actual objectives during the talks have been unclear. While it was hoped that some sort of “deal” could be arranged to facilitate trade and an easy separation, the nature of a possible agreement is yet to be determined and a “no deal” situation remains a possibility.
Although Article 50 states that a maximum of two years should elapse before a member’s final departure from the union, a transitional “implementation period” has been arranged to push the date of Brexit back from 2019 until the beginning of 2021. Issues such as the Irish border remain unresolved, and the EU appears unwilling to cooperate with weak British negotiators to solve them.
Hard Brexit vs. Soft Brexit
Every political persuasion now seems to have a different idea of what Brexit should entail. After the referendum result was announced, new labels appeared to describe the various types of possible Brexit; all of a sudden, politicians were talking about a “hard Brexit” versus a “soft Brexit.”
A “hard Brexit” described what was previously just called “Brexit”: withdrawal from the EU and all its associated institutions. But, according to the political establishment, this is irresponsible and unnecessary; to “crash out” – another common new buzzword – of the EU implies danger and chaos. Much safer is the new idea presented by political elites after the referendum – that of a “soft Brexit.” It’s still Brexit and therefore officially carries out the will of the electorate, but allows the possibility of the U.K. to remain within various EU institutions such as the Common Market (the free trade area that facilitates the free movement of goods, services, people and capital) and Customs Union (the mechanism by which all EU member states agree to charge the same tariffs to items imported from outside the union).
Depending on your political opinions, a “soft Brexit” is either the safety net that could save Britain from self-destruction, or it’s a sneaky means by which political elites can keep Britain within EU regulations.
Power Plays by the Elite
Although 52% of the British public voted in favor of leaving the EU, data from 2016 showed that the majority of parliamentarians supported the Remain side of the debate, many voting against their constituents. This group of political elites has made several attempts to wrest back control over the country’s fate by stonewalling and attempting to complicate the process with additional stages that would give politicians more influence over the outcome.
The House of Lords – the U.K.’s upper house made up of unelected aristocrats and political appointees – rejected the European Union Withdrawal Bill a total of 15 times. They insisted (unsuccessfully) on various amendments, resulting in a game of “ping pong” with the elected House of Commons – yes, this is a genuine parliamentary word.
Pro-Remain politician Dominic Grieve caused dramatic scenes when he attempted to install an amendment of his own that would have given parliament the ability to take over negotiations in the event of a “no deal” Brexit – consider that around 73% of Members of Parliament (MPs) want to stay in the EU, according to Business Insider. The amendment was defeated, though it echoed a previous successfully passed law tabled by Grieve in which parliament gave itself the power to veto any deal with the EU by holding a “meaningful vote” on the final agreement.
The European Union Withdrawal Bill finally passed on June 20, 2018, just in time for this second anniversary of the Brexit vote. With the law passed by Parliament, Britain need only wait for the Queen’s assent to make Brexit a reality. But experience tells us this is not enough; the U.K. still has no idea what Brexit will look like and whether there will be an actual departure from the status quo. December 2020 will reveal the real shape of Brexit – until then, it’s only a paper moon.