51.9 percent. That’s the proportion of people in the UK who voted to leave the European Union (EU) back in the summer of 2016. The barest two percent over the halfway mark threw the country into the rough seas of political turmoil, a storm from which the nation is yet to emerge. If it ever does, the battering winds of international disagreement and public dissatisfaction are ensuring it will never be the same.
The referendum on Brexit — short for “British exit” — was just the start. Since 2016, ongoing negotiations between the UK and EU member nations have been attempting to settle a withdrawal agreement, the terms on which the UK will leave. The major features of this agreement include financial settlements between nations, the fate of EU and UK nationals living abroad, and the issue of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
The dominant disagreement in British parliament over the withdrawal deal stems from the extent to which the UK will remain subject to EU law, and for how long. A chief driver of public opinion was the sloganized desire to “take back control”. But practically, this is hardly feasible. The current iteration of the deal includes the “backstop” as part of the Northern Ireland Protocol, a measure to prevent the reestablishment of a hard border. It includes the assurance that the UK will form a customs union with the EU, and as such conform to EU legislation. As for immigration, the current right of EU citizens to free movement will continue at least until the end of 2020, the proposed end of the transition. But future British policy regarding the rights of non-British nationals post-Brexit is not yet fully determined. Further conflict arises from the remaining financial contribution the UK must commit to the EU as part of the “divorce settlement”, which recent estimates have put at 39 billion GBP.
Now, you may well be wondering: if Brexit involves so much trouble, why did so many people vote for it? Before the referendum, the Leave campaign was pushing for a scenario not backed by the then-Prime Minister David Cameron or the main political parties. But in-party fragmentation and conflict meant that the divisive issue allowed the upsurgence of purportedly anti-establishment politicians. Voters rejected the major political elite, feeling their interests were unrepresented. These sentiments were whipped up into a wave of discontentment and rising nationalism over issues such as economic stagnation and immigration by the Eurosceptic hard right UK Independence Party (UKIP), who had pushed for the referendum initially. Blatantly false promises, such as the infamous 350 million GBP for the National Health Service (NHS) that would supposedly be saved upon leaving the EU, were blindly believed by voters. In fact, many such claims have been quietly dropped from the official government stance as the skies have darkened since the referendum, including the assurance that there would be a short and simple transition period. But, now nearly three years on from the vote, nothing seems to be any clearer except for the vacillant and indecisive nature of British politicians and their inability to reach an agreement.
With the resignation of Prime Minister Theresa May on June 7 comes even more uncertainty. She was forced to step down from the post after the repeated rejection of her negotiated withdrawal deal by the British parliament and the loss of support from her party, the Conservatives. With no agreement in place, and the days until October 31 (a deadline already delayed by six months) dwindling away, the future is murkier than ever. Whichever politician takes the helm has a difficult time ahead of them, and whether there will be a second public referendum to reflect the current atmosphere or the UK will push ahead with a no deal scenario remains to be seen.
As a British citizen who has come of age too late to have voted for my nation’s fate in the referendum, but too soon to be the slightest bit reassured of the outcome, I am terrified for my future. Gone are the happy imaginings of a future living or working in Europe, replaced with a shock at the views of at least half of my compatriots. The UK must remuster what remains of its fleet in order to weather the still-raging storm. But it must also remember that it is no longer “an empire on which the sun never sets” — the time of Britain being a world power both at sea and on the political stage is gone, and our attitude must recognize that.