Brexit a Reality: U.K. Leaves the EU

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January 29, 2020

Brexit has become a reality.


The United Kingdom has left the European Union, ending a relationship that began in 1973. At 11 p.m. GMT, it was midnight in Brussels, headquarters of the EU, and the Withdrawal Agreement took effect, having been ratified by the European Council as a last formal step, following approval by the U.K. Parliament and the European Parliament.

To mark the moment, workers at EU headquarters removed the Union Flag from its displays and the U.K. has minted a coin. Also marking the moment was U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the third leader of the country to have grappled with the demands of Brexit since it was triggered by the results of a 2015 referendum. Johnson gave a speech in which he called for calm and common purpose. Meanwhile, proponents of Brexit celebrated their long-awaited moment.

Cameron, as part of an election pledge, promised that if he and his Conservative Party were returned to power, they would facilitate the referendum before the end of 2017. In 2015, the Conservatives won a majority and returned to power. Cameron then kept his pledge to hold the referendum.

The ballot featured two options: “Should the U.K. Remain in the European Union?” and “Should the U.K. Leave the European Union.” The proponents of the status quo, with the U.K. in the EU, were part of what came to be known as the Remain camp; the proponents of the U.K.’s leaving the EU were part of what came to be known as the Leave camp.

Both sides campaigned fiercely in the weeks before the day of the referendum, supporting their arguments with both verifiable facts and questionable claims. Cameron and other government officials, not to mention celebrities and other high-profile people, made impassioned speeches and participated in televised debates.

And on June 23, 2016, voters went to the polls. It wasn’t just current U.K. residents who could vote. Anyone who had voted in the U.K. in the last 15 years was eligible to vote, and millions of people who now live elsewhere sent in their ballots via mail.

After all of the votes were counted, Scotland was clearly in the Remain camp, with a 600,000-plus majority; Northern Ireland was clearly in the Remain camp, with a nearly 100,000-vote majority; and Wales was clearly in the Leave camp, with a 130,000-plus majority.

It was England, though, as the nation in the United Kingdom with the largest population, that provided the most votes for both camps and tipped the balance into the Leave camp. In the end, a majority of voters, about 52 percent, stated their preference that the U.K. should leave the EU.

Turnout was heaviest in England, at nearly 73 percent. Just behind was Wales, with 71 percent turnout. Scotland, at 67 percent, and Northern Ireland, at 63 percent, lagged in turnout. Overall turnout was 72 percent of registered voters.

In the nearly four years since the referendum, debates on the issue have been sustained and fierce, with families and friends often supporting opposing sides, for different reasons. Many in the U.K. and in other European countries had become impatient at the length of time the process was taking. On many elements of the issue still–immigration, jobs, trade–what comes next is not entirely clear.

The U.K. government on March 29, 2017 officially invoked Article 50 of the EU Constitution, which stipulated that the country must give up its membership in the EU within two years. Cameron stepped aside after losing his political clout; and his successor, Theresa May, hampered by governing by coalition, was unable to get a deal across the line by a succession of deadline extensions. In the end, it was Johnson, the former Mayor of London who had campaigned so hard for Britain to Leave the EU, who was first elected Prime Minister, then given a clear majority in Parliament, and then who was able to get the Withdrawal Agreement done. What remains now are all of the international agreements yet to be negotiated–the ones that haven't had to be made for 46 years because the U.K. was part of a large, wide political and economic customs union.

The U.K. had joined the European Union in 1973, as part of the First Enlargement, along with Denmark and Ireland. Two years later, U.K. voters, by a vote of 67 percent to 33 percent, declared their preference for staying in the EU. At various times since, the desire to have another vote on EU membership has waxed and waned. The current wave of anti-EU fervor in the U.K. began to build in the early 2010s, with the rise of the Ukip Party; the leader of that party, Nigel Farage, ran unsuccessfully for Parliament several times but did get elected to the European Parliament, from which he oversaw the mechanics of Brexit grind through the final, slow steps.

Under the terms of the agreement, the U.K. and the EU will now enter into a transition period in which the former is still obligated to EU laws and rules but no longer has any official say in the EU decision-making process.

The new bill that Parliament approved provides for a modified customs union between Ireland and the U.K. along that border. U.K. customs rules will govern any goods that go from non-EU countries into Northern Ireland and stay there. EU customs rules will govern those goods if they are intended to go on to Ireland.

The bill gives Northern Ireland's devolved assembly the right of consent over the deal, which will also be subject a vote of continuance very four years, not only Northern Ireland's assembly but also in the U.K. Parliament.

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