Apart from Donald Trump, Brexit has to be the topic with the vast majority of news publications dedicated to in the past two years. It seems like everybody is already fed up of discussing it, yet the implications for the UK, and especially for us as international students in London, should not be understated. As of today, we are just over a month from the March 29th deadline, but on what terms, nobody really knows. Either due to incompetence or stubbornness, the negotiators have been unable to come up with a deal that satisfies both the British parliament and the European Union leaders. As a brief example of just how convoluted the entire process has been, two ‘Brexit Ministers’ have resigned since it began.
This past January the deal Theresa May’s government put together after two and a half years was voted down in what I would call a humiliating fashion, with a vote to reject the deal of 432 vs 202 MPs. The Prime Minister subsequently survived a no-confidence motion put forward by Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition. May and her negotiators are currently working to modify the agreement in order to achieve support from the relevant parties involved. The major obstacle for a successful negotiation and avoiding a no-deal Brexit – a scenario everyone agrees would be disastrous for the UK – is the so-called ‘backstop’. This is basically a clause put in place to prevent the return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
The discussion about the Irish border is a particularly sensitive one due to the sad history of The Troubles, a violent conflict that started during the 1960s and caused immense suffering on the Irish population. If the UK leaves the Customs Union – a requirement for many MPs – border controls would have to return because Ireland is part of the EU while Northern Ireland is part of the UK. Inspections on the movement of goods and people would need to be carried out. An open Irish border would defeat the purpose of leaving, according to the arguments of pro-Brexit individuals. Conversely, a closed border could reignite tensions between nationalists and loyalists that silently divide Northern Ireland to this day.
With the current state of affairs, there are four possible general outcomes on March 29th. First, if May and her negotiators can modify the rejected deal for it to be acceptable for parliament and the EU, the UK would exit on the terms agreed. How that deal would look is pure speculation as the EU negotiators have constantly repeated that they are not willing to concede much ground. The government has to balance the needs of various camps in regards to the content. Furthermore, all 27 EU members have to accept the final version. Second, a no-deal Brexit on the deadline is the outcome feared by everyone. Such a scenario would result in the country falling into economic recession, as well as leaving millions of EU nationals in the air about their residency and work in the UK, among many other things, including a significant drop in the value of the British pound.
The scenario many see as increasing in probability is an extension of the negotiating period. This is perfectly plausible, but there is a caveat. The elections for the European Parliament will take place between May 23rd and May 26th, while the transition of representatives will occur in June, so an extension could only be established up to that time. The EU has been working on a plan to transfer the UK’s current seats to other member States. Having this extra time would allow negotiators to operate with less pressure and actually produce an agreement. Finally, the last option is to hold a second referendum. Most polls reflect the notion that in the event of a second referendum, Britons would elect to vote against the exit process. The rocky road travelled so far has eroded the feeling of many individuals who had previously expressed their desire for the UK to separate from the Union. Many underestimated how complicated the process would be. Politicians, though, are not that keen in taking this path as they consider it would be disrespectful to dismiss the democratic voice of the voters that chose to leave the EU in the original referendum, not to mention the toll it would have on their credibility (I personally believe that ship has sailed). The likelihood of this outcome would increase substantially with an extension of the negotiating period, as organizing a referendum on such a scale takes considerable planning and funding. Some final food for thought: under the UK system, referendums are not legally binding, meaning Government and Parliament could have chosen to ignore the result if they deemed it appropriate.