After three and a half years of political convulsions that have changed the fabric of society in the United Kingdom, come 11:01pm the British will have walked away from the European Union. This Brexit Day has been a long time coming, often delayed but now will finally end 47 years of the UK’s marriage with the European community.
For most, very little will change immediately. All of the rules and laws remain in place until December 31 at least — the so-called transition period that may be extended until the end of 2021 if both the UK and the EU fail to reach a full free trade agreement that will determine the future relationship on both sides of the English Channel.
For most who live outside the UK, the British decision to leave is difficult to comprehend. The EU offers a mechanism for goods all across the wider European region to be moved freely to markets, creating prosperity and jobs. It also offered a regulatory system when all enjoyed the same freedoms and protections, safeguards and generally assured a level playing field for more than 500 million people who live and work in the political, social and economic bloc.
The challenge now will be to ensure that tensions don’t ultimately lead to the full fracturing of that union. Today, in the words of Sir Winston Churchill, “is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
The UK joined the European Economic Community as it was back then on January 1, 1973 along with Ireland and Denmark. Since then, the bloc has grown in membership, scope and scale, becoming a politically cohesive unit, developing a single currency now shared by 19 of the 27 remaining members, and building a framework for decision making and judicial oversight. But Britain’s membership never sat easy with Britons.
The UK’s decision to leave was divisive and the recriminations of that June 2016 referendum have tainted politics there ever since. Only the scale of the Conservative win in last December’s general election have allowed Brexit to happen. But divisions and scars remain.
While many in the UK will be celebrating that they are “free” or have “taken back control”, the reality is that the referendum and decision was based on half-truths and political opportunism. But the die has been cast and now the UK faces a difficult task in the upcoming free trade negotiations to secure its favoured status broadly aligned with the club whose membership it terminated.
There will be long-term consequences and tensions within the union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are already surfacing. The challenge now will be to ensure that those tensions don’t ultimately lead to the full fracturing of that union. Today, in the words of Sir Winston Churchill, “is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”