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    Brexit 2016: Rifts, Referendum and the Long Road to Divorce

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    2016 will be seen as a landmark year in British history in which the referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union resulted in a vote to leave the institution after more than 40 years and which - despite being a long time coming - came as a political earthquake in Europe and beyond.

    Britain has always been a reluctant member of the European Union. It was never really wanted in the first place. In 1963, French President Charles de Gaulle vetoed the British application to join what is now the EU, declaring: "Angleterre, ce n'est plus grand chose" (England is not much anymore).

    De Gaulle reiterated this four years later and the UK decided to press for membership by stealth and to wait until de Gaulle was gone. The UK finally joined in 1973 what was then known as the "Common Market" — a trading bloc — under the Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath.

    Britain's former Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath arrives at 10 Downing Street, in London Monday, April 29, 2002, where Prime Minister Tony Blair was hosting a celebratory royal Golden Jubilee dinner.
    © AP Photo / MAX NASH
    Britain's former Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath arrives at 10 Downing Street, in London Monday, April 29, 2002, where Prime Minister Tony Blair was hosting a celebratory royal Golden Jubilee dinner.

    The road to divorce began with Heath, who said in a TV broadcast, January 1973:

    "There are some in this country who fear that in going into Europe we shall in some way sacrifice independence and sovereignty. These fears, I need hardly say, are completely unjustified."

    However, the bloc morphed from being a trading bloc — based on the old European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and the European Economic Community (EEC), formed by Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany in 1951 and 1958, respectively — to a more political bloc under the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, which established the European Union in 1993.

    The Maastricht Treaty — signed by another Conservative Prime Minister, John Major — led to further integration of the EU, greater powers for the parliament as well as the creation of the euro single currency. However, the UK did not go along with all of the Maastricht Treaty. Nor did it sign up to other amendments.

    The UK is not a member of the Eurozone single currency area, nor a participant in the Schengen zone — the area of free movement not restricted by border controls. These are two significant factors when considering the current stability crisis within the Eurozone and the effect of the migrant crisis on the Schengen countries.

    The Maastricht Treaty — seen by many in the Conservative Party as a capitulation to Europe and a reversal of Heath's promise over sovereignty — created havoc within the Conservatives and led to the founding of the UK Independence Party, with ex-Tory Nigel Farage as one of its originals.

    So bitter was the acrimony within the party that former Prime Minister John Major — who signed the treaty — lost the 1997 election over the issue and kept the Conservatives out of power for 13 years. The Conservatives finally slipped back into power — in coalition with the Liberal Democrats — in 2010, but still the issue of British sovereignty and the excesses of Brussels was a divisive one.

    In an effort to win the 2015 election, Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to promise an In-Out referendum on the issue by the end of 2017. The moment the date for it was announced the rival campaigns began — not least the rival camps within the Conservative party, with ex-London Mayor Boris Johnson leading the 'Leave' group and Cameron making the case for 'Remain'.

    British Prime Minister David Cameron (R) and London Mayor Boris Johnson (L) pointing at each other on August 24, 2012.
    © AFP 2019 / Will Oliver
    British Prime Minister David Cameron (R) and London Mayor Boris Johnson (L) pointing at each other on August 24, 2012.
    British Prime Minister David Cameron (R) addresses pro-EU Vote Remain supporters during a rally in Bristol, south-west England, whilst campaigning to avoid a Brexit, ahead of the June 23 EU referendum
    © AFP 2019 / Geoff CADDICK
    British Prime Minister David Cameron (R) addresses pro-EU "Vote Remain" supporters during a rally in Bristol, south-west England, whilst campaigning to avoid a Brexit, ahead of the June 23 EU referendum

    The biggest guns in the world were wheeled out in favor of Cameron's campaign. US President Barack Obama said the UK would be at the "back of the queue" if it left the EU and Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, warned: "We haven't found anything positive to say about a Brexit vote."

    Cameron himself invoked memories of the Battles of Waterloo and Trafalgar in suggesting that turning its back on the EU could put Britain at risk of a new war.

    "Isolationism has never served this country well. Whenever we turn our back on Europe, sooner or later we come to regret it. And if things go wrong in Europe, let's not pretend we can be immune from the consequences," Cameron said.

    In the end, 'Project Fear' was a disaster. The more people were told that quitting the EU would spell catastrophe for Britain, the angrier they became. The defining issue for many — and particularly those in the Conservatives — was the inability to control the numbers of EU migrant workers flooding into the UK and the perceived loss of British sovereignty over human rights, justice and British border controls.

    Britain's outgoing Prime Minister, David Cameron with his wife Samantha, waves in front of number 10 Downing Street, on his last day in office as Prime Minister, in central London, Britain July 13, 2016.
    © REUTERS / Stefan Wermuth
    Britain's outgoing Prime Minister, David Cameron with his wife Samantha, waves in front of number 10 Downing Street, on his last day in office as Prime Minister, in central London, Britain July 13, 2016.

    The British people delivered their verdict, June 23, with a 52 percent vote to leave the EU against a 48 vote to remain. Six months later, the British Government — now under Prime Minister Theresa May — has yet to trigger Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, to begin the formal process of leaving.

    The reasons for her delay in firing the starting gun? Dissent over what exactly is meant by "Brexit," Scotland and Northern Ireland both voting to remain, but — most of all — complete disarray in both London and Brussels — over how the UK should extricate itself from the Brussels machine and what its future relationship with it should be. That last issue is supposed to be top of the agenda for 2017. The question is: whose agenda is it?

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    Tags:
    Hard Brexit, post-Brexit, Brexit, EU membership, referendum, European Commission, European Parliament, European Council, European Union, Jeremy Corbyn, David Cameron, Theresa May, Great Britain, Europe, United Kingdom
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