For better or worse, Britain’s divorce from Europe and Ireland seems to be an unstoppable force. It remains to be seen if the separation will be a tragedy or a success. We may not know for many years, or until another European war breaks out. Of course it also may be that the British will reverse themselves in future years.
The people of Britain narrowly (51.9 percent in favor) voted to leave the European Union and its 27 nations on June 23, 2016. It was a shocking result that few expected. The anti-Europe vote was led by nationalistic conservatives who did not like abiding by Europe’s rules. It was mostly a “no one tells us what to do” vote. Two of the most extreme leaders were the bombastic former mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and radical conservative Jacob Rees-Mogg. Bloomberg news reports that the opposition to Europe in Britain is led by people who want a nuclear shield over the island of England and a permanent occupying force in the Falkland Islands.
There is a slight but, to some, a growing chance that there will be a second vote to reverse the 2016 decision, but as time goes on those chances become more remote. There is some new resistance from the British Labor unions and a group in the Parliament called the “People’s Party.”
Due to contractual agreements Britain made when joining the EU, it will owe Europe a very large sum, variously estimated at up to 40 billion pounds ($59 billion in US currency). This is mostly because the EU operates on a seven-year budget that members must contribute to. There will be 2-3 years of back payments owed when Britain leaves. In addition to the monetary issues, there are many other matters that must be agreed on.
This is a very complex process, and hundreds of people on both sides are working on what has to be done.
Perhaps the most troublesome issue is the existing land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland that was set up by the partitioning of Ireland in 1922. We know of the tragedies caused by that decision by the British. The hardline Unionists in the North who own the ten votes in Parliament keeping the prime minister in power want an in-force border complete with soldiers, passport controls, and large gate houses on both sides of the line. This will, of course, conflict with the Good Friday agreement and cause significant interruption in north-south business and tourist travel.
But there are many other impediments to a smooth agreement. Take the magnificent Euro Tunnel, which carries trains, food, and merchandise to Europe and back. English lamb butchered in Cornwall can be in Milan in the afternoon. British fish caught in the morning can be in Paris restaurants for lunch. German brakes can be shipped to BMW in Oxford not in days, but in hours, and without customs duties or paperwork.
Negotiations for all of this are scheduled to be completed this month.
British companies are so cautious that pharmaceutical firms are stockpiling medicine for fear of running out. The chocolate company Cadbury is loading up on chocolate.
Whether it’s fear or just good corporate planning, British companies are now evaluating decisions about moving parts of their businesses into the European Union countries. Jaguar’s CEO Ralf Speth said in a speech (with Prime Minister May May in attendance) that a bad Brexit divorce deal could jeopardize tens of thousands of jobs. Jaguar employs 40,000 people in the UK. And Rolls Royce has already moved its design section for large jet engines to Germany “to ensure it can continue operating whatever the Brexit outcome.” Barclays Bank has already moved 150 jobs to Dublin.
The burden and much of the pressure over the Brexit separation planning is on Britain’s current government and Theresa May. It is not an exaggeration to say that the short-term future of Britain is, at the least, at risk. And there is no doubt that Ireland will be feel the impact if things go wrong.