Despite two general elections, the future of the UK remains a quagmire. What has been achieved, and what does the future hold for the former empire?
At 2300h, on Friday 31 January 2020, the UK officially left the EU. However, the UK will remain wedded to the EU, during the transition period, which ends on 31 December 2020. PM Boris Johnson has said that the transition period shall not be extended.
What has been Achieved?
In the June 2016 referendum, the British public opted to leave the EU, in a closely contested verdict; 52% voted to leave, while 48% voted to stay. The referendum verdict surprised many, with some suggesting there should be a second referendum. But the British Government consistently ruled out a second popular vote; saying, to rule out the first one could trigger a constitutional crisis. The departure date for the UK to leave EU was originally set for 29 March 2019; but, was delayed twice, when the British Parliament rejected the deals negotiated by the then PM, Theresa May. In June, 2019, when Parliament rejected the deal a third time, Ms. May resigned, paving way for Boris Johnson. With Parliament still in deadlock, Boris Johnson ordered an early election, which was conducted in December 2019. Boris Johnson’s Conservative party was returned to power, with a comfortable majority of 80 seats and the plan to leave the EU, was finally approved by the British Parliament.
Analysis: Conforming to the new plan, all the 72 remaining British EMP (European Members of Parliament) have formally left the European Parliament, at Brussels. Britain has also been excluded from all European institutions and is no longer a member of a 27-member alliance with a combined population of over 450 million. EU and UK have agreed to a transition period, till 31 December 2020, during which time the UK will continue to meet their financial obligations to the EU. The UK and the EU also agreed to respect the rights of each other's citizens, living in their respective territories. On the critical issue of Northern Ireland, the UK agreed that EU's custom-rules would continue to prevail. Other important issues like cooperation on security, new arrangements for fishing and the Free Trade Agreement (FTA), remain to be worked out.
“We woke up this morning out of the European Union (EU). But we still follow their rules, without a say.” - Laura Kuenssberg, British Journalist
Will BREXIT incite Irish Nationalism?
On 10 April 1998, the governments of the UK and Ireland signed the historic 'Good Friday' Agreement. The agreement is widely respected, for bringing an end to the 30-year Northern Ireland insurgency (1968-98). It also created the devolved system of government, for the British governance of the six North-Eastern counties on the island of Ireland, called Northern Ireland.
Analysis: Since 1921, when Northern Ireland was made a political entity, separate from the Republic of Ireland, the political opinion in the region has remained divided. The clash of interests remains between the Nationalists (Catholics), who identify as Irish and the Unionists (Protestants), who identify as British.
During the June 2016 referendum, 56% of Northern Irish voters chose to remain with the EU. Under the BREXIT deal, which was passed into law by the British Parliament, Northern Ireland will remain attached to the EU through its neighbour Republic of Ireland, for all regulatory intents and purposes, including customs.
Analysis: As part of the sacrosanct Good Friday Agreement, there should be no customs barriers, on the Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland border. However, Ms Thresa May's rejected Brexit plans had proposed the Irish Backstop; the creation of such a border, on the Island of Ireland. In the new arrangement, proposed by PM Johnson, there are likely to be customs checks on all goods heading from Britain to Northern Ireland; which, would be treated as British exports to the EU. However, traders could claim a refund of duty, if the goods were to remain within Northern Ireland (part of UK).
Assessment: The result of the 2016 Referendum, in Northern Ireland, was paradoxical, as it was a clear mandate against the majority view, to leave the EU. Further, the proposed establishment of customs ports on the UK-side of the Irish Sea would symbolically represent the economic union of Ireland. Sinn Fein (the largest Nationalist Party) will see these developments, as a reason to call a new referendum, for Irish Unity. On the other hand, the unionist parties are bound to feel their loyalty to the UK, betrayed. Yes, BREXIT is likely to re-invigorate the question of Irish Unity.
How will the UK Deal with the Question of Scottish Independence?
On 18 September 2014, Scotland conducted a referendum on the question of Scottish independence from the UK. The Referendum question was, 'Should Scotland be an Independent Country?’ The verdict returned was 55% voted ‘No, and to remain with the UK’, while 45% voted, ‘Yes, and to be an independent country’. In the BREXIT Referendum of 2016, Scotland also voted decisively to remain with the EU; 62%, voted to remain while only 38% voted to leave.
Analysis: The Scottish Parliament has taken note of the paradoxical referendum verdict; wherein, the majority of Scotland voted to remain with the EU, contrary to the larger UK sentiment to leave the EU. Accordingly, they have already authorized the Scottish government to seek a second referendum on independence.
In the General Election of Dec 2019, the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) won 48 of the 59 seats in Scotland. Ms Nicola Sturgeon, the 1st Minister of Scotland, interprets the verdicts of the Referendum and the General Election as 'a cast-iron mandate for a new referendum (on independence)’.
"Scotland will return to the heart of Europe as an independent country."
Nichola Sturgeon, 1st Minister of Scotland
Analysis: Similar to Northern Ireland, the majority view in Scotland is also to remain with the EU. However, while Ms Sturgeon is keen to have a fresh referendum, PM Boris Johnson has said the referendum could not be repeated and that the referendum of 2014, was a once-in-a-generation event.
Assessment: Notwithstanding the PM’s discouragement, the question of a second referendum on Scotland’s independence, is likely to gain ground. More significantly, in the absence of a satisfactory FTA with the EU, the position of the pro-independence SNP is likely to get further strengthened.
What will the Future UK look like?
The UK is made up of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In 1961, in the face of political isolation, the UK voluntarily and formally applied to join the EU. It took 12 years of negotiation to overcome French opposition, to the British joining the EU. Finally, in 1973, the UK was admitted to the EU, along with Denmark and Ireland. Even at that juncture, many in the UK opposed aspects of EU mandate; such as, supranationalism, common agricultural policy and a common budget, which were established prior to the UK joining.
Analysis: EU’s aim is to ensure the free movement of people, goods, services and capital within the internal market. In many respects, the EU is a remarkable achievement, having created a single market, a standardized system of laws and a passport-free Schengen Area. A 2019 study also indicates that member states who joined the EU between 1973 and 2004, have increased per-capita income by more than 10%, in the first ten years. In 2012, the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, for more than six decades of contributions towards the advancement of peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights, in Europe. The EU is a member of the G-7, the G-20 and widely acknowledged as an emerging superpower.
From an economic point of view, BREXIT will be damaging to both the EU and the UK; perhaps, less for EU and more for the UK. For the present, the UK still retains an independent nuclear deterrent, a permanent seat in the UN Security Council and its (so-called) special relationship with the US. However, the UK, with its 67 million population, will lose the recognition and power it received from the EU, in matters of diplomacy and trade. Britain’s economic well-being and the value of the Pound Sterling will depend on the UK's proposed FTA with the EU, which it still has ten months to finalize. However, negotiations are expected to be hard, and the EU is likely to make the UK pay an exemplary price for its’ vacillating stance on EU membership. Primarily to discourage other members from seceding the EU.
At best, PM Boris Johnson will succeed in negotiating an FTA with the EU. In which case, the UK may gain access to EU markets, but they will no longer be part of the EU’s decision-making. On the other hand, a no-deal BREXIT, may force the British Parliament to yield both on Irish Unification and Scottish Independence.
Has the Sun finally set on the British empire?