Brexit: An Introduction for Americans

Part One

I’ve attempted to set out the very basics of Brexit in a (currently) three-part guide, made for those who may not be aware of some of the history and context. In particular, this has been written with Americans in mind. Why? Because as a UK resident, I know Brexit will impact me. But as an American myself, I think Americans should know (and hopefully care) about Brexit, too. 

In Part Two of my series, I set out some of the main issues and concerns that have complicated or otherwise stalled the negotiations. 

What is the European Union?

What we now call the European Union was first a coal and steel partnership between France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg after World War Two. The philosophical foundation centered on the idea that trade and economic interdependence lessens the risk of armed conflict.

What began as a purely economic trading bloc has  developed into a unique economic and political partnership involving 28 European countries. Importantly, countries of the European Union (known as Member States) benefit from access to the Single Market, which allows goods, services, labor (workers) and capital to move freely between countries without tariffs or borders.

So, is the European Union like America, and the member countries are like “States” ?

On the surface, perhaps. You can travel across national borders in the same way you can travel across state lines. Likewise, thanks to the single market, commodities and services can flow between countries, without being subject to tariffs or other trade frictions. Within the 19 countries of the Eurozone, you can even use the same currency. But remember: the EU is a political system, not a country.

As a political science student in university, I had Max Weber’s definition of a nation state drummed into my head: “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly on the legitimate use of force within a certain geographical territory.” The EU does not have the power of coercion through police and security forces: this power still belongs to the individual member states. The EU relies on member states to enforce laws and policies, and discretion is permitted in certain areas, including national security.

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This map (via BBC) shows the current Member States, and their date of joining the EU. Croatia joined most recently, in 2013.


What are the branches of EU government,
and who is in charge?

The EU doesn’t have a President or Prime Minister in the traditional sense. Rather, four institutions work together to run the EU and handle policies ranging from agriculture, environment, health, trade, foreign relations, security, justice and migration.

  • European Council – represents the governments of the individual member countries. The Council sets the EU’s overall political direction, but has no powers to pass laws. The President of the Council is currently Donald Tusk. He is the principal representative of the EU on the world stage.
  • The Commission – also known as the “guardian of the treaties,” the Commission promotes the interests of the EU as a whole.
  • Parliament – represents the EU’s 510 citizens and is directly elected by them.
  • European Court of Justice – the ECJ is the supreme court of the European Union in matters of European Union law. It is composed of one judge per member state – currently 28 – although it normally hears cases in panels of three, five or 15

Although there is no “Capital of Europe,” Brussels in Belgium is home to three of the four key institutions (the ECJ is based in Luxembourg) and is somewhat of an “informal” capital.


Why is the United Kingdom leaving the EU?

A referendum was held on Thursday 23 June, 2016, to decide whether the UK should leave or remain in the European Union. Leave won by 51.9% to Remain’s 48.1% (see a detailed breakdown of the results here). More than 30 million people voted, representing nearly 72% of eligible voters and 46% of the UK population.

To put this figure in perspective, In the United States, roughly 55% of eligible voters and 42% of the population voted in the 2016 Presidential elections.

Was the Brexit referendum question flawed in its design?

Some have lamented the fact that EU citizens living the UK were excluded from voting, as were 16 and 17 year olds. Also worth noting is that England and Wales voted in favor of Brexit, whereas Scotland and Northern Ireland backed staying in the EU. This has led to further questions on democratic legitimacy and the possibility of the Union breaking apart, as discussed below.


Whose idea was this?

The United Kingdom, generally speaking, has had a love-hate relationship with the ideas of a “united Europe” and an “ever closer union” for decades. However, relations have deteriorated considerably over the last ten years. The 2008 global financial crisis, the subsequent Eurozone crisis, an influx of immigrants and refugees, terrorism, and social malaise brought concerns about the relative merits of EU membership into the mainstream political debate.

Perhaps no other political movement was as vocal about the UK leaving the EU than The UK Independence Party, a right-wing Eurosceptic populist party. Colloquially known as UKIP (“you-kip”), the party was led at the time by Nigel Farage – whom you may have seen campaigning next to Donald Trump or appearing on Fox News as a commentator.

To quell infighting within his Conservative Party, and to satisfy voters contemplating leaving the Conservative Party for UKIP over the EU question, Prime Minister David Cameron decided to hold the referendum. He supported the UK remaining in the EU, and although he didn’t have to, he resigned the morning of the referendum announcement.

Interestingly, despite campaigning for Remain and stating that “the UK has made a mistake in leaving the European Union,” Cameron insists that “calling a referendum was the right thing to do.

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David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister when the referendum results were announced. Although Cameron campaigned to remain within the EU, “the British people made a different decision to take a different path. As such I think the country requires fresh leadership to take it in this direction.”


After the Referendum Vote,
was the UK declared free from EU rule?

Put simply, no. In order to leave the EU, there are a few legal procedures that must be followed (including the triggering of Article 50, addressed below). Furthermore, when the UK leaves the EU, it will also leave the framework of rules and regulations that govern an incredibly wide spectrum of policy areas. The UK still needs to figure out what sort of relationship it wants to have with its neighbors.

Practically speaking, it really is like a divorce. If normally can’t just sign the paperwork one day and be done with the other spouse forever. You need time to discuss what happens with your house, cars, and other assets, as well as your liabilities like the mortgage, credit card debt and little Henry’s school tuition. You also need to decide what your future relationship will look like.

Why is there a deadline of March 2019?

After the Referendum Vote and Cameron’s resignation, fellow Conservative Party politician Theresa May became Prime Minister.  In March 2017 – nine months (and quite a few legal battles) after the vote – her government “triggered Article 50” of the Treaty of Lisbon. Although Article 50 is only five paragraphs long, this now-famous provision sets out (inter alia) that:

  1. any EU country may decide to quit the EU;
  2. the exiting country must negotiate its withdrawal with the EU;
  3. there are two years to reach an agreement (unless everyone agrees to extend it) and;
  4. the exiting country cannot take part in EU internal discussions about its departure.

The date of 29 March 2019 is therefore important, because it marks two years from the date of the UK’s invoking of Article 50 – the deadline mentioned at paragraph 3.


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What’s behind the smiles? Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab (left) shakes hands with Michel Barnier, a French politician serving as the EU’s Chief Negotiator for Brexit.


So what’s happening now?

This is certainly a busy time for politicians, lawyers, lobbyists and concerned citizens. Negotiations about future relations between the UK and the EU are taking place now, in an attempt to reach an agreement as soon as possible.

In July 2018, Theresa May unveiled her cabinet’s official view of a proposed Brexit deal – known as the Chequers Plan. But European Council President Donald Tusk rejected the Chequers plan at an EU summit in Salzburg last month, leading to increased speculation that the UK could leave the EU without a deal.

Meanwhile, calls to hold a “People’s Vote” to allow the British people to have a “final say on Brexit” are gaining momentum. More than 100,000 people are estimated to attend the biggest Brexit protest to date on Saturday, 20 October.

Speaking at a press conference yesterday (16 October), Tusk admitted that he has “no grounds for optimism before tomorrow’s European Council on Brexit. As I see it,” he continued, “the only source of hope for a deal for now is the goodwill and determination on both sides.”



Up Next: Are we there yet? The key questions and concerns complicating the Brexit negotiations

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