On 23 June 2016, like many, I stayed up watching as the referendum on the UK’s membership to the European Union (EU) transformed from an often-disdained possibility into reality. When the final result was announced, I was expecting a sudden shock, a metaphorical lightning bolt that would leave the landscape of the UK forever changed. Instead, there was a moment of high, panicked energy as the pound dropped, and then nothing. The nation waited to see what Brexit would bring.
Certainly, there have been challenges, such as the Scottish and Irish appeal for consultation before Article 50 is triggered, which failed, and the ruling that Parliament must be consulted on the triggering of Article 50. But nine months later we are still facing the looming prospect of a British Exit (Brexit) from the EU with little idea as to what that might entail. Theresa May has declared that it will be a hard Brexit, no single market, no freedom of movement, but that leaves a vast swathe of issues untouched.
The impact of a Brexit on industries is a major source of concern. Everyone from career politicians to farmers to radiologists have weighed in on the potential impacts to their work. A recent report from the Lords’ Science and Technology Committee declared that the effect of the uncertainty surrounding Brexit was ‘corrosive’ to science, and blamed unclear government responses.
Environmentally, the EU has extensive policies, making it ‘one of the most influential bodies of environmental law in the world.’ One element of these are the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which regulates fishing in the EU and which the UK will almost certainly be leaving. This will lead to a series of complex negotiations between the devolved parties, as well as neighbouring states, to establish legislation for a new fishing agreement. This will need to not only include new rules but also means of ensuring compliance, which international law does not sufficiently cover. There are both industrial and conservationist interests in guaranteeing a smooth transition, but evidently to do so will be a delicate process which will require extensive effort. There are many fears that initiatives enacted by the current government will be far less environmentally friendly than existing EU regulation, not only in fisheries but also in broader climate change related efforts.
The end of the freedom of movement and labour from the EU is also creating significant fears about what the UK government will do. Ending freedom of movement has serious implications for EU citizens living in the UK, and vice versa. Currently, neither group is guaranteed to be able to stay in their current countries of residence. This situation has escalated into a political scandal, with Jeremy Corbyn accusing Theresa May of a ‘Hunger Games approach,’ as she has refused to definitively guarantee the right of EU citizens to stay in the UK. This has prompted a panic in the UK, as over fifty thousand EU citizens have now applied for permanent residence.
In Northern Ireland, the potential lack of the freedom of movement policy could mean more than the disruption of lives that EU citizens living in the UK face. Some fear it could undermine the Good Friday Agreement, and potentially spell the return of political violence to the region. Border controls had been the target of heavy violence during the Troubles, the period of violent conflict in Northern Ireland relating to Irish integration, and policemen voiced concerns that their reestablishment could make those working there into ‘sitting ducks’ for those opposed to the peace process.
These issues may seem disparate, but all of them are examples of different elements of Brexit which have significant impacts on the lives of thousands of people. All of them also indicate a new Post-Brexit anxiety about the future. Some of this anxiety is deliberate. Not guaranteeing EU citizens the right to stay in the UK is seen as a strategic move, for example, to leverage the rights of British citizens living in the EU. Other elements, however, are simply dependent on the negotiations which lay ahead.
Article 50 is due to be triggered by the end of March, but this will not answer many questions. Negotiations are expected to take two years, but for comprehensive replacement treaties on issues such as tariffs, it could take five. Time is not the only factor. The CETA trade deal between the EU and Canada, only recently passed by EU parliament, provides an example of some of the complexities of these agreements. After seven years of negotiation, the whole trade deal was nearly destroyed by opposition from the Belgian Walloon region, because EU deals such as this one require all 27 members to endorse it. The UK’s position will not be the same as Canada’s, but it points to the long and convoluted path ahead.
The need for new legislation and institutions will also fuel political battles on issues such as the tension between environmental protections and economic growth, or the role of immigrants within society. The UK 2020 general election will be a particularly weighty one, as that government will take power right as Article 50 negotiations end. Indeed, political decisions during this period will take on an unusual significance, as they shall determine the path that the UK will take in the next decade. This also leaves room for greater conflict, as groups have the potential to once more impact issues that were once closed.
Brexit has thus created a situation of heightened anxiety and politicisation surrounding future uncertainty. Leaving the EU will be a gargantuan mission, and the UK public is understandably concerned with how that is undertaken, as it will have effects long into the future of the UK. It is also necessary, however, to examine the effects of the uncertainty itself. The process of Brexit, with all its inherent fears, needs to be examined as a process itself, not just the negotiated results.