On January 31, 2020, Britain began its exit from the European Union, an action that had been anticipated since the 2013 general election. In that election, the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister David Cameron feared losing against the UK Independence Party. As a result, he pledged that if the Conservative Party were to win, he would administer a referendum regarding the state’s membership in the European Union. Cameron never anticipated winning a majority vote, but because he did, he was bound to follow through with his promise. The referendum was administered in 2016, and only contained one question: Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?
The referendum yielded a majority in support of departure from the EU, however this majority was quite close, with 52% wanting to leave, and 48% wanting to remain. The distribution of voters demonstrated, broadly, that voters with a university education were more likely to vote stay compared to those without a university degree. Moreover, the parties advocating for remaining or leaving the EU respectively, were both accused of spreading inaccurate information and fear mongering, exposing flaws in both campaigns.
However, what caused the desire for a referendum? There were a few factors that publicly advocated a widespread desire to leave the EU. The most predominant reason is related to the historical prominence of Euroscepticism in the UK. This is a political doctrine advocating for disengagement with the EU. In fact, Euroscepticism is apparent in many countries throughout the European Union, but has historically manifested itself quite distinctly in the UK. The Second World War left Britain on the sidelines with relation to the rest of Europe, who were growing closer.
In 1962, Britain showed a desire to join the European Economic Community but was rejected twice, until it was finally allowed to join eleven years later, in 1973. This initial rejection generated a lot of skepticism and an overall uneasy relationship between Britain and the EU. Another factor promoting the referendum came as a result of the European refugee crisis, with an influx of migrants, predominantly from Syria, seeking refuge within the European Union. Many UK citizens opposed the disruption in homogeneity of cultures caused by this migration. The leave party voters gave statements such as “it doesn’t feel like a Christian country anymore” to justify their decision in the referendum.
Beyond Euroscepticism and immigration resentment, there was a perpetual wave of dissatisfaction expressed by members of the UK in terms of the nature of the EU parliament. Citizens of the UK often felt that the parliament was out of touch with the times, and distrusted their legislation to be legitimate and appropriate for the changing socio-economic environment. Therefore, as a result of a general dissatisfaction, Euroscepticism, and anti-immigration sentiment, exiting the EU gained traction amongst the population and, eventually, came to fruition in 2013, despite its somewhat accidental trigger.
Brexit has rendered immense trade disruptions and other instabilities that have been said to be as big as those created when the UK first joined the European Union. Many industries and international firms present in the UK have earned profits off of the “free flowing channel” that a relationship with the EU provides.
An overnight detachment has left many of these producers with few options, and the friction caused has provoked many suppliers to rethink how their supply chains have been organized. The impact has been felt quite hard on many levels, and a sector that has been particularly touched is the fish industry. As a result of the movement of stock being disrupted so substantially, UK fishermen’s products have increasingly been rejected by buyers who claim that the fish has lost its freshness and standard for purchase.
The impact has been felt externally as well, with some small to medium companies stopping export of goods to Britain for the moment, due to the overwhelming amount of paperwork and associated costs. Furthermore, gaps have begun to appear in produce sections in Ireland due to British companies being deterred by the immense tariff hits they will face along with exportation to the EU, deteriorating the value in exportation.
However, when something as drastic as Brexit occurs, disruptions to the status quo should be expected to follow. The conventional system will undergo some changes with certain branches being abandoned and others emerging. An example of an emerging facet of trade in Britain, now an independent actor, is their decision to join the trans-Pacific trade bloc. The trade agreement within this bloc joins eleven countries and Britain’s resolution to join comes from the exacerbation of tariff rooted problems currently impacting trade in the European Union. The bloc removes tariffs with its member countries, enabling British producers more selling prospects outside of their usual EU buyers.
Considering the context under which Brexit occurred, as well as the plethora of trade and otherwise disruptions and unfamiliarities it has caused, it is hard to conclude whether or not exit from the EU was the best idea for Britain. Economically speaking, current events anticipate that Brexit will likely hit the British economy hard. Economies within the EU reliant on UK producers will also be hit, with UK producers potentially shifting away from export to Europe.
In addition, new opportunities for British producers may not be immediately realized, testing the patience of those affected hardest. The trans-Pacific trade bloc also does not include the current economic powerhouses China and the US, lessening its reach and potency as a collective.
It is also important to consider the conditions under which Brexit happened. Brexit has been described as an “accident waiting to happen,” a title that questions whether or not it was actually needed. Was it really necessary to upend this network of travel, trade, and coexistence within the European Union? Was the risk of economic recession not enough for the members to try other options before resorting to such a drastic choice? These are all important questions to consider, especially at a time when Britain and other nations are struggling to cope with the economic, political, and social repercussions of the Brexit.
However, it is hard to paint a complete picture at the moment, as Brexit is still new. The prospect of new opportunities may eventually compensate for the present difficulties. It is always good for a state to autonomously evolve and develop. Immigration qualms, Euroscepticism, and the dissatisfaction with government all contributed to an increasing level of resentment within Britain prior to the decision to leave the EU was made. Looking forwards, Britain has already begun to take steps to aid in their economic advance as a state operating separately from the rest of Europe. It is possible that the Pacific trade bloc will provide opportunities to firms that have been affected in the short run by Brexit, and may even help industries grow. Britain’s efforts to improve their external relations provides hope that Brexit may turn out to be a good call after all.
Edited by Ines Navarre
Misbah Lalani is a first year at McGill University, pursuing a bachelor’s in honours international development studies and industrial labor relations, with a minor in social entrepreneurship. She is serving as a staff writer for Catalyst and is particularly interested in economic development and market conditions in Middle East.