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Real talk: Theresa May and I are exhausted. I’ve been researching this episode on Brexit for one month and every time I think I’m ready to record and move on with my life, something dramatically shifts. I feel like I’m the only one in the world who truly understands what it’s like to be the Prime Minister of Britain in this chaotic time. I’m with you Theresa.
Last week, British Parliament passed a bill that would force Theresa May to ask for an extension on Brexit. I’ll be honest, I was kind of bummed because that makes about five pages of my research obsolete, but such is the life of someone who deals in current events. Then just yesterday, Theresa May decided to cross party lines and start talking to the opposition to try to make a deal. And just when I checked the news before recording this, it looks like she’s going to ask for an even longer extension on the Brexit decision. Seriously, it’s exhausting. I wanted to wait as long as possible to publish this episode to see if some resolution would occur that I could include and explain for you in vastly oversimplified terms. Maybe all these politicians would realize that the greatest thing they could do for their country would be to unite and work together? Hey, a girl can dream.
Today we’re talking about Brexit or, “Should’ve signed a prenup.” Why did Britain want to leave the EU and why can’t they agree on how to do it? And, is anyone paying attention to Ireland? It feels like someone should be…
It’s a portmanteau, a hot mess, and, according to one government official: it’s “The great, steaming pile of poo in the room.” So let’s get in there! This is Anti-Social Studies; I’m Emily Glankler; settle in and let’s get some historical context.
Act 1: The Vote
What is Britain? Seriously, people get this wrong all the time.
- England: the country of England. I’m sure you’ve heard of it: Shakespeare, tea, world conquest
- Great Britain: all of the countries that share the same island – England, Scotland, and Wales
- United Kingdom: all of those countries plus Northern Ireland just across the water. Northern Ireland is different from Ireland, which is NOT a part of any of this. More on that later.
So when we’re talking about Brexit, we’re really talking about the United Kingdom’s exit – but Ukexit doesn’t roll off the tongue. For our purposes today, I’m going to just use Britain for the most part because it’s simpler – unless I’m talking specifically about Northern Ireland.
What is the European Union?
Headquartered in Brussels, the EU began after WWII to help war-torn countries rebuild. It started as an economic alliance to help each other, especially considering the European nations were now stuck between a rock and a hard place. The rock being the United States and the hard place being Soviet Russia. In the wake of the deadliest war in human history, Europe adopted a philosophy that countries that trade with each other don’t invade each other, right? And it kind of rhymes, so it must be true.
Over the years, the EU grew to become a “single market,” like it is today. Basically there are open borders between the member states – goods, people and currency all move freely. On a personal note, I hate this because now when you travel around Europe they don’t stamp your passport every time you enter a new EU country. You just walk on through. I want those stamps, people!
Today, in addition to an economic alliance, the EU has its own governing body – and this is the real sticking point with the British. The EU parliament sets rules in a wide range of areas – environmental protection, transportation, consumer rights, etc. This makes sense, because for goods and workers to move freely, there should be relatively uniform laws relating to the economy. However, over the years powerful countries like Britain have grown frustrated at the idea of being told what to do by someone else. It’s kind of epic karma, right? The British Empire had been telling people around the world how to live their lives for centuries. Africa is like, “How do you like it, London?!”
Britain joined the organization in 1973 and it has always been a dividing factor in British politics. For one, they never adopted the Euro – a clear sign that they weren’t “fully in” to this whole integrated economy the way other countries were. And, to be fair, they could have argued that the EU needed Britain more than they needed the EU. That might have been true for most of its existence, but today Britain seems to be learning that they might need the EU more than they thought…
So, why did Britain vote to leave it? In short, uneducated voters were swayed by nationalist rhetoric and made a terrible decision. Sound familiar?
The first question is why were the British people voting on Brexit anyway?
Like I mentioned, this issue has come up in British politics before. But with the rising refugee crisis and dangerous nationalist rhetoric going on in the West, the issue had become a huge dividing point in the country. So, instead of making the difficult decisions that they were elected to do, Parliament basically punted the decision back to the voters. Why?! This seems like a terrible decision to leave up to the general public. Sorry democracy, you’re noble but you’re also dumb and easily distractable. Confirmed. This was a terrible decision. It seems that Prime Minister at the time, David Cameron – who was a “Remainer”, believed that the voters would never choose to leave the EU. And this way he could settle the debate by saying, “See? It’s what the people want!” Except…
British politics is very confusing to non-British people. And, I’m a non-British person, so I’m not going to get into the weeds. There are two main parties: the Conservatives and the Labour Party but Brexit allegiances don’t really match those divisions. The Conservative Party especially is split over the issue. So, for our purposes we need to understand the two sides as they voted on the Brexit question: “Leavers” and “Remainers.”
The “Leave” side was led by former mayor of London and person who can offend everyone on the planet in just one sentence, Boris Johnson. His message was pretty simple: Britain is powerful on its own and shouldn’t be told what to do by Brussels. Those who voted to Leave wanted to take back control, making decisions and spending money on British priorities, rather than what all of Europe wanted. Here’s how Johnson put it, “There is simply no common political culture in Europe… Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically. The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods.” Whoa there, buddy. Pulling out Napoleon and Hitler comparisons in the same sentence? That’s a bold move. Again, the irony of the British being so offended at the idea of a foreign power ruling over them in any way is super hilarious to me as a world history teacher.
The Leave side was backed by a right-wing political group, then-candidate Donald Trump, and, very probably, Russia – a nation who has long resented the EU and raises its own global standing anytime there’s chaos in the West. Damn it, Russia, don’t you have anything better to do?!
But again, the philosophical leader of the Leave campaign is Boris Johnson. So who is he? He was a member of Parliament (or MP) for the Conservative Party, former mayor of London, and the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs from 2016-2018. He was actually born in New York City and started his career as a journalist in London. Once he got into politics he became one of the most recognizable politicians thanks to his frequent TV appearances and his tendency to say exactly what was on his mind, regardless of the consequences. Over the years he has explained Obama’s removal of a bust of Winston Churchill as “a symbol of the part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British empire;” and he called George W. Bush “a cross-eyed Texan warmonger, unelected, and inarticulate.” So at least he reaches across the aisle for insults. During the 2016 US election he said Hillary Clinton looked like “a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital” and he said that the reason he doesn’t visit New York that often anymore “is the real risk of meeting Donald Trump.” Many point out that Johnson and Trump have a passing resemblance to each other and he describes being mistaken for Trump as “the low point” of his visits to New York.
While on a diplomatic trip to China, he offended the entire country by pointing out that ping pong was invented by the English. Meanwhile, China is like, yeah and tell me how our paper, gunpowder, printing, and the compass worked out for you. But, congratulations on the ping pong. Johnson controversially compared Muslim women in burqas to mailboxes and said that women covering themselves for religious reasons was “ridiculous.”
Weirdly, he’s a big fan of Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad because, in the midst of a brutal civil war, the president has made a commitment to preserve ancient structures within his country. Johnson, who studied Classics in college, appreciates the gesture so much that it seems that he’s willing to overlook… you know, the chemical warfare and oppression of his own people, if it means a few ancient ruins get saved.
So, when the debate over Britain’s membership in the EU started to rise, Boris Johnson was the guy to say just the right (or wrong, really) things to convince Britain to isolate itself. The campaign to Leave the EU was also helped by the rise of refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East. As many European countries, led by Germany, started accepting more refugees and implying that everyone in the EU should do the same, the campaign capitalized on Islamophobia and xenophobia to bring more people to its side. To be clear, this wasn’t really the main reason why Britain voted to leave, but it was the most effective political message to get people out to the polls.
The irony of this is that the UK has always had an “opt out” option from most of the EU’s immigration and asylum policies. So, if the EU did decide that all of its member states had to absorb a certain amount of refugees, the British government was given the special privilege that it could opt out. This was referred to as the “Dublin exception” and it allowed them to return asylum seekers to the first country where they registered in Europe. So, if a refugee first registered in Dublin or Berlin or wherever, and then made their way to Britain, the British could just send them back to Dublin or Berlin or wherever. What’s even more ironic is that if they leave the EU entirely they won’t have this option anymore. So now if a refugee shows up seeking asylum in Britain, they will have a much harsher decision to make: allow them to stay in Britain or send them all the way back to a violent country where they very well might be killed.
So, it should surprise no one that the vast majority of the experts were all on the “Remain” side. Seriously, the “Leavers” have Boris Johnson, Trump, and probably Putin. And the “Remainers” have:
- The leaders of both political parties (Conservative Prime Minister at the time David Cameron and his rival Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn)
- The Chancellor of the Exchequer (basically the head of the British Treasury)
- Two former Prime Ministers
- President Clinton
- President Obama
- The European Union, who voted overwhelmingly that they would like Britain to stay
- The Head of the US Federal Reserve
- The Head of the World Trade Organization
- The OECD – Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development
- The INternational Monetary Fund
- The Governor of the Bank of England
- And John Oliver, who, frankly, is the person I trust most when it comes to British news
Basically everyone who is privy to the innermost workings of the global economy has said that the UK should remain. Their argument has been that Britain is stronger and safer as part of Europe than on their own. So… why did we offer this up as a public vote, again?
It’s important to note that a lot of people voted to remain. The overall vote was 52% Leave and 48% Remain, with record high voter turnout. And, the vote seems to have geographically split Great Britain. England and Wales voted to Leave, but the majority of people in Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to Remain. This is just one more frustration in a long line of English people forgetting about Scotland and Northern Ireland when it’s convenient to them, and we’ll come back to this later.
For now, they voted to Leave. So they’re Leaving. We think. So how are they going to leave the EU?
No seriously, it’s not a rhetorical question. How are they going to leave the EU? Help.
Act 2: The Deal (or lack thereof)
So, after calling for the Brexit vote, David Cameron was like, “I’m out!” He resigned to make way for a new prime minister. Enter: Theresa May.
When she became prime minister she left her post as the Home Secretary, making her the only woman in British history to hold two “great offices of state.” (Man, the British make everything sound so much better.) May was also against Brexit and was governing over a hung Parliament that was split between wanting to stay in the EU forever, wanting out of the EU now, and wanting to get out of the EU in some other way that was not what she was proposing. Oh and, the British economy began tanking immediately after the referendum. Basically, she has the worst job of all time.
OK. So of the people who voted to “Leave,” there are different opinions on how to do this. That was the tricky thing – the referendum just asked “Do you want to leave the EU – yes or no?” There was no option for detail or nuance so there are some people who wanted to leave parts of the EU or others who wanted to leave but in a very different time frame.
In general, there are two camps out of the “Leavers”: Those want a “clean break” and those who want a “soft break,” which doesn’t seem to make sense to me but none of this makes sense to me.
In a “clean break” scenario, Britain would basically try to pretend the EU never happened – it was all a bad dream that led to economic prosperity and ease of travel; thank God that’s over. Britain would regain complete control over its trade and immigration policies and they would leave all EU institutions, especially the Court of Justice. This was a big sticking point for many “Leavers” who resented the fact that they were governed partly by laws passed and upheld through the EU Parliament and the EU Court of Justice.
There are others who want a more mixed relationship with the EU. A “soft break” would mean that Britain would maintain close economic ties and might even share some economic controls with the EU so that they can still get some of the trade benefits. What this looks like in practice is really unclear – that’s part of the problem. This whole issue and the relationship between EU countries is so complex that there are essentially an infinite number of possible outcomes.
The one possible outcome we can look at is Theresa May’s deal. But… it’s 585 pages long and it’s been voted down multiple times at this point. So, it’s probably not important that we go through the deal page by page. But what does it look like in general?
Well first, it’s important to reiterate that right now Britain is just trying to agree on a plan for the transition to leave the EU. So the last two years since the referendum were Theresa May negotiating with Brussels (where the EU is headquartered) and her own government to get just a transition plan. Man they really should have signed a prenup. The EU agreed to it but now she can’t get her own country to sign on. It’s a Woodrow Wilson trap! You spend so much time convincing everyone in Europe to join your new League of Nations that you forget to convince Congress! Dang it!
So the transition plan that May has brought back to Parliament would give the UK until December 2020 to fully leave the EU. They would have to abide by EU laws during that time but they wouldn’t have any say in EU institutions or elections. Financially, the UK will have to “settle up” with the EU and pay their bar tab. We’re not sure exactly how much, but it would be in the ballpark of 39 billion pounds.
UK citizens living in the EU and EU citizens in the UK would get to stay where they are. But there is a lot of uncertainty around the millions of people who work across borders and maybe reside in multiple countries. For example, if a UK citizen lived and worked in both Germany and Spain, for example, they could apply for permanent residence in one of those countries. But, their “right to reside” would only apply to the one specific country that they listed on the application. This wouldn’t have been an issue even a decade ago, but now, because the EU has made it so easy to move across borders and for companies to set up shop in various countries, this is actually a more common problem than you might think. And even if they aren’t looking to live for extended periods in multiple countries, it definitely could just make inter-European travel more difficult.
There’s also a lot in the deal about arbitration when the UK and the EU disagree on laws. The UK would get its sovereignty back but, obviously, whatever laws the EU passes – especially relating to trade – will have an indirect impact on the British economy considering that out of Britain’s top 10 trading partners, every country except US and China is an EU country.
So, why don’t people like Theresa May’s deal? Why has Parliament rejected it multiple times? In short, the biggest sticking point in the deal is a thing called a “backstop.” But let’s wait to get into this because it requires some basic Irish history that we’ll get to in a few minutes.
For now, just accept that Britain doesn’t like Theresa May’s deal. Some think it’s too vague; others dislike specific points within it that relate to their own situations; let alone the half of the country that doesn’t want to leave the EU at all. Again, it’s a mess.
So… could the UK just not do this? Yeah they could. The UK can vote at any time to stop the process and stay in the EU but there’s no way Parliament is going to do that right now – they’d be going against a public referendum. Some politicians are calling for another national vote, I’m assuming in hopes that Britain would vote to Remain and then Parliament could feel justified stopping the process. But, it doesn’t look like that’s happening any time soon. I think the government learned its lesson about the whole “asking the people what they want” thing…
There’s also – as always – still just good-old-fashioned politics at play. The Labour Party sees this as an opportunity to take control from David Cameron and Theresa May’s Conservative Party. They want to force an early election, take power, and go renegotiate a softer version of Brexit. And, just this weekend, Theresa May got so fed up with her own party that she did something relatively unthinkable – as the head of the majority ruling party, she started negotiating with Jeremy Corbyn and the opposition Labour Party. I could go into detail about why she did this, but I think it’s better that you hear it straight from her. And see if you can hear the sheer exhaustion in her voice. This poor woman…
But, while all of this infighting is going on, the deadline for Britain to agree to a plan has come and gone. The EU has given them a short extension until April 12 and Theresa May is supposedly going to ask for longer. This is critical because looming behind all of the debate over clean breaks and soft breaks; Conservatives and Labour Party, is the threat of Britain just leaving the EU with no deal at all.
Now, this is the thing that – in theory – just got prevented by a one-vote margin today. Parliament passed a bill that requires Theresa May to ask for an extension rather than using the “No Deal” as a threat to get her own deal passed. But, that still doesn’t mean that it couldn’t happen – it just makes it less likely. But, since I did all this research, let’s figure out what a “No Deal” Brexit would look like. Well, we have no idea. Because that’s kind of the point. There’s no deal to interpret.
In anticipation, what we do know is that Britons are freaking. out. about the possibility of a No Deal Brexit. They are stockpiling food, ordering “Brexit Boxes” filled with survival materials, and the government has released over 100 guidance documents advising people on what to do if there is a No Deal Brexit. There’s a whole government department now called the Department for Exiting the European Union that posts regularly on updates, specific deals being made with individual countries, how to prepare your company and its data protection; whether or not Gibraltar-based gambling and gaming operations will still be able to access the UK market.
Here’s just one example of what a No Deal Brexit might look like. At the port of Dover just across the English Channel from France, wait times to board the ferry could increase to six days. And this isn’t just an inconvenience, it could destroy businesses and even lives. Perishable goods could go bad with elevated wait times and people relying on critical medications that come from other countries are worried about what might happen if deliveries get held up. It’s a mess.
But the biggest potential mess – by a longshot – is not across the English Channel, it’s across the Irish Sea.
Act 3: Are you there Britain? It’s me, Ireland.
So, to clarify again: Northern Ireland is part of the UK. Ireland is a totally different country that is part of the EU. So, if a hard Brexit were to occur, the 310 mile border between Ireland and Northern Ireland would become “hard,” so to speak. Customs checkpoints would go up and no one would be able to cross freely. And everyone agrees that this would be really bad. To understand why this would be really bad we need – you guessed it – some historical context!
The first English King to assert full control over the island of Ireland was Henry VIII in 1541 – you remember him, the guy with all the wives. Remember that he was also the one who broke with the Catholic Church since the Pope wouldn’t let him annul his marriage so Henry had a bone to pick with Catholics. He sent thousands of Protestant settlers over to Ireland to displace Catholic landholders, attempting to reduce the power of the Pope. Most of the Protestants settled into the northern part of Ireland… uh oh… if history has taught us anything it’s that north-south country splits never end well. Just ask Korea, or Vietnam, or the Sudan, or the Dakotas, probably.
By the late 19th century, in the wake of the potato famine that led to a million Irish deaths and over 2 million Irish people leaving the country altogether, nationalism was on the rise. Remember that that late 1800s and early 1900s were the era of nationalism around the world – Germany was unifying under Otto von Bismarck; European nations were competing to see who could have the biggest empire to prove their nation was the best; various ethnic groups began to push for their own nation-states and Europe was like, “Not now, nationalism is only for our nations…”
So, nationalism also hit Ireland and many people wanted to break away from English rule. England made promises that they didn’t keep and so, when Britain got dragged into WWI many Irishmen saw this as their opportunity. Irish republicans (or those who want their own country) launched the Easter Rising in 1916. When the British military came home from WWI they promptly crossed the Irish Sea and fought the Anglo-Irish War. Atrocities were committed on both sides – by the British military and by the IRA (Irish Republican Army) led by Michael Collins.
In the end, Ireland was partitioned with the Irish Free State in the south and Northern Ireland choosing to stay in the UK. It wouldn’t be until 1937 that Ireland gained full independence from the British Empire. Again, all of this should be seen in the global context of decolonization – the Irish are fighting for independence just like in India, South Africa, Kenya, etc.
So, ever since this rebellion, a key goal for Irish nationalists has been to one day reunite all of Ireland and create one independent state. These people are called “nationalists” or “republicans,” they are mostly Catholic, and they are the majority in the country of Ireland. There are those who don’t want to reunite the Irish island – they are called “unionists” or “Loyalists,” most of them are Protestants and they are the majority in Northern Ireland.
For Irish nationalists, the symbol of the division between the two Irelands was the hard border. Customs checkpoints became common targets for bombings and other attacks. The worst of it came during the thirty years of The Troubles from 1969 to 1998. Sporadic fighting and bombings eventually left 3,500 dead. The most infamous event came in 1972 in Derry, a predominately Catholic city in Northern Ireland. The electoral system had been gerrymandered so that the Catholic vote was often silenced and Derry was seeing a lack of investment by Northern Ireland and the UK compared with other, smaller Protestant towns. As the second-largest city in Northern Ireland behind Belfast, Derry became the focus of a civil rights campaign inspired in part by the Civil Rights Movement in the Jim Crow South in the U.S. Derry was sort of like the Irish “Selma,” if that makes sense.
Protests soon turned violent as nationalists young people clashed with the British army. Over time, the British troops announced “internment without trial” in Derry, meaning that they could imprison anyone deemed suspicion without due process. Protestors escalated their demonstrations – in 1971, over 30 British soldiers were killed by the IRA while 21 people died in just 3 days of riots and 11 Catholic civilians were shot by the British army. By 1972, Northern Ireland had banned all parades and public marches. In an act of civil disobedience, protestors marched in Derry and were fired upon by British paratroopers. 13 people were killed, most of wom were shot in the back or while they were trying to help the wounded. This event is known as “Bloody Sunday” and is the thing U2 and the Cranberries are always singing about, I’m pretty sure.
Importantly, one of the main reasons the Troubles ended was because the EU created a single market that eliminated customs controls and opened borders between all EU countries, including Ireland and Northern Ireland. And the 1998 Good Friday Agreement reaffirmed Northern Ireland’s constitutional status as a part of the UK. That status could change, but only with the consent of a majority of its population – remember this. The Good Friday Agreement also repealed the law that partitioned Ireland, formally opening the border. Remember that customs checkpoints had been one of the main targets for the IRA so removing them was a big deal.
So the big question is, what would be the impact of Brexit on Ireland? Well, considering that Northern Ireland (and Scotland for that matter) both voted to remain in the EU, the impact could be big. The parts of the UK that aren’t England have always felt slightly mistreated or overlooked by London and Brexit is just one more example of that. Also, for the last 20 years or so Northern Ireland has governed itself with more independence and they are slightly bristling under the assumption that they’ll just go along with whatever England decides to do.
And this would be especially hard to take if a hard border returned. In the event of a “No Deal” Brexit or a hard Brexit, there is the possibility that the border between the two Irelands could go back up. 3.5 million vehicles cross the border each month (that’s one car for every two people living on the entire island of Ireland.) Families, farms, and communities straddle the border and would be separated. It would be bad.
This issue is also the big sticking point in Theresa May’s Brexit deal. In order to avoid this hard border situation, her plan puts in place a thing called a “backstop.” Essentially, this is a safety valve to avoid a hard border between the two Irelands – which is good – but it does this by moving the hard border to the Irish Sea – meaning, basically, that a hard border would go up between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. So to avoid the dreaded border checks, Northern Ireland would technically remain a part of the EU customs union while England, Scotland, and Wales float away into Brexit-land on their island. This wouldn’t be good for anyone because Northern Ireland relies on trade with the rest of the UK just as much as it does with the EU. And Britain doesn’t like this because it splits their United Kingdom in half. Plus, it would make it hard for them to negotiate trade deals when ¼ of their kingdom is technically a part of a different economy. And the biggest issue is that Britain would not be able to decide on their own to end the backstop; it would require approval from the EU – which is the kind of oversight from the mainland that got us into this mess to begin with.
So, everyone agrees that there shouldn’t be a hard border between the Irelands. But one of the biggest issues holding up negotiations is a safety net that would avoid a hard border between the Irelands. And by rejecting the deal, they are making it even more possibly that there would be a hard border between the Irelands. Got it?
The other trick is that the Republic of Ireland is now in a much stronger position than it’s ever been. Their economy is growing three times as fast as the UK’s economy, partly thanks to the EU single market. And politically, they see this as the opportunity of a lifetime to possibly reunite the island of Ireland. More nationalist Irish groups feel like Brexit could be the tipping point that could convince Northern Ireland to leave the UK. Remember that the Good Friday Agreement says that Northern Ireland could vote to reunite with Ireland. And now, reuniting with Ireland would mean remaining a full member of the EU – something that they voted for in the Brexit referendum.
So one historic result of Britain voting to leave the EU because of resentment of its oversight from Brussels and its perceived apathy toward specifically British problems, could be that Northern Ireland votes to leave the UK because of their resentment of its oversight from London and its perceived apathy toward specifically Irish problems. Ah irony, my old friend.
On a side note, the situation is similar in Scotland. They also voted to Remain in the EU and are being dragged out since they are part of the UK. And some Scottish leaders have said that it’s possible they would call for another referendum on Scottish independence depending on how Brexit pans out. And I’m no expert, but based on what I’m seeing I’d say, “Get the hell out of out of there Scotland!”
So, for now, Theresa May has just a week to try to get her Parliament to agree on a deal for the… fourth time, I think? And as we speak, the EU is drawing up strict conditions in the event that they grant Britain a longer extension, with some reports saying that the EU is considering pushing back the deadline until 2020. But for now, let’s all just bask in the glow of not being the only western nation who seems to be hellbent on destroying whatever dignity and credibility we had left. Because, hey, at least we’re not sitting in a “great, steaming pile of poo.”