What You Need To Know About Brexit… In A Nutshell
Brexit has sparked levels of chaos ranging from economic free fall to existential crises, but amidst the cacophony of thinkpieces and backtracking politicians, let’s take a moment to reflect on how we got here and where the hell we’re going:
What’s actually happening now?
On June 23 Britain had a referendum on whether it should stay in the EU. Despite many polls that said it would vote to “Remain” the country ultimately voted to “Leave.” London, Scotland and Northern Ireland all voted to stay in the EU but the rest of England and Wales decided to leave.
Things have been crazy since then. David Cameron, the PM, resigned and after some ruckus the Conservatives (aka Tories) eventually elected Theresa May to be their next PM. Meanwhile, the opposition party is descending into chaos and the British Pound fell to a 30 year low against the USD.
What caused Brexit to happen?
So far, there seem to be three theories for what drove so many people to vote Brexit:
- Immigrants: Faced with rising immigration a bunch of White Englanders worried about their jobs and the erosion of the English way of life wanted their government to clamp down on immigration. This was a revolt against unrestricted immigration from poorer Eastern European states, Syrian refugees residing in the EU and millions of Turks about to join the EU. This version is most heavily subscribed to by far-right UKIP party.
- Elites: Faced with decades of economic malaise, stagnant real wages and economic destitution in former industrial heartlands ever since the rise of “Thaterchism” and the embrace of Neoliberal policies by Tony Blair’s New Labour the non-Londoners have decided to revolt against the elite. This isn’t just about being against the EU as it stands, and its free market and free movement of peoples. This is an epic “fuck you” moment against everything that has happened in the UK since 1970. The left wing of the Labour party subscribes to this theory.
- Bureaucracy: Faced with Brussel’s asphyxiating amount of red tape the English people decide to “take back control” of their country’s bureaucracy. If they are poor it is because Brussels has drowned them under a sea of incomprehensible laws and regulations that they must now be liberated from. In this scenario a vote to leave the EU is one for rapid deregulation that will spark an entrepreneurial growth miracle fueled by the ingenuity of English industry. The right-wing of the Tory party subscribes to this view.
The three theories are obviously intertwined at times and contradictory at others, that’s why it matters who is going to be negotiating the post-Brexit relationship between the UK and the EU.
Who are the folks behind this mess?
The Brexit drama has more colorful characters (and plot twists) than a Game of Thrones season. Here are the most notable:
- David Cameron: Britain’s current PM and leader of the Tory (conservative) Party. Prior to calling for this referendum that almost no one wanted in the first place he was most known for allegedly putting his dick in a dead pig’s mouth as part of a hazing ritual in college.
- Jeremy Corbyn: Hailing from the far-left of the Labour party he was a virtual nobody until he was elected to the head of the Labour (left) party after their humiliating defeat in last year’s general elections. He’s known for being uncompromising in his views, sparking constant infighting in his party and being Parliamentary Beard of the Year. He also doesn’t really like the EU and is accused of not campaigning hard enough to keep Britain in.
- Theresa May: She’s technically pro-Remain but she’s known to harbor some Eurosceptic views of her own. She was Home Secretary under Cameron and is known for not liking immigration too much but has also been described to us as “ideologically flexible.” Conservatives love her and liberals fear her… Margaret Thatcher anyone?
- Boris Johnson: Trump’s “brother from another mother” and former Mayor of London was a former ally of Cameron until he figured out that campaigning to leave the EU would be a faster way to become the next PM. He’s known for loving Churchill, making thinly veiled racist statements and being stuck on a zipline while promoting the London Olympics. It was widely assumed he would be PM after Cameron resigned but, in a typically confusing fashion, he decided not to.
- Michael Gove: The Minister of Justice was a former ally of Cameron before he decided to back Brexit. He was also an ally of Boris before he decided to throw his own name in for the next PM (notice a common theme here). He is widely known for being the guy who said the country no longer needs experts… good luck then without them.
- Nigel Farage: The actual Trump of the UK. The leader of the far-right, Euroskeptic UKIP party is probably the biggest reason there was a referendum in the first place. He was admonished by people on his own side of the debate who found him too controversial for them, especially after he issued posters that showed lines of asylum seekers under the title “Breaking Point” implying that the UK was too full to take more migrants. He has a penchant for the word “proper” and an overwhelming desire to take his country back… from who, no one really knows.
Is this a failure of Democracy?
Yes and no, but not for the reasons you think.
A lot’s been said about how the youth were robbed about their future in the EU, how people voted against their self interest, how they were duped by false promises or how google searches indicate that people had no idea what they were voting for. Thus, the tendency among a lot of Remainers is to dismiss those that voted to Leave as ignorant or racist.
That misses the point, while young people did overwhelmingly vote to Remain fewer of them showed up and, shockingly enough, if you don’t show up your vote won’t count. Also, if people don’t understand what they are voting for that is a failure of campaigning rather than a failure of democracy.
But, there is an argument that the entire premise of the referendum here is flawed. The result relied on a simple majority, which is a very low bar for such an important decision. Think about it, you need more than a simple majority in a group to decide where you are going for dinner.
Also, no one really asked for the referendum except for Nigel Farage and others on the far-right. The EU has been going through a few difficult years and populist pressure is on the rise. The whole point of having representative democracy is that you don’t caught into these types of situations…
So, who is in charge now?
The short answer is no one (except in Scotland).
David Cameron, the PM, resigned from office, although he initially promised to stay until October.
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, who campaigned to Leave, has all but disappeared from public eye except for an op-ed he published which might as well read as a great case for why Britain should be in the EU. Following that Op-ed (and some betrayal) Boris, “like a general that led his army to the sound of guns, and at the sight of the battlefield abandoned the field,” decided not to run for PM.
After some initial jockeying between conservatives Theresa May emerged as the winner of an internal party competition. Once that became clear Cameron bolted for the door, resigning immediately and humming his way (no, literally) all the way home.
In a fitting display of leadership, Nigel Farage also resigned, saying he has realized his “political ambitions.” Now that he has taken his country back we assume he wants to take his life back.
Meanwhile, the opposition has descended into an all out Civil War. Furious at how bad of a campaign Corbyn ran and worried that he might run an equally bad one at a general election later this year over half his shadow cabinet has resigned and he’s lost a non-binding no confidence vote within his party. For those of you that don’t know a shadow cabinet is like Model United Nations for the opposition party – they have no real power but they get to give passionate speeches. With half his make believe cabinet resigned and a vote of no confidence in his party Corbyn is fighting for his political survival when he could be making a push to be PM.
As Alistair Darling said: “We have no government and no opposition.”
Ahh… except for Scotland.
Scotland’s First Minister and Angela Merkel look-a-like Nicola Sturgeon seems to be the only one with a post-Brexit plan in this entire mess. Once the news that Brexit was going to happen dropped she seized on the historic opportunity to troll her southern neighbor. Using the turmoil in London she pressed her case for Scotland to stay in the EU regardless of what Britain wants, suggesting to hold a referendum on Scottish independence or even threatening to veto Brexit (unclear if she can do that).
How does the breakup happen?
The EU is a bit like Hotel California in the sense that you can check out anytime you like but you can never really leave. For the first few years of the EU there was no formal mechanism to leave, they were that optimistic about the whole thing.
Then they added something called “Article 50” which lets a country initiate the exit process by just submitting notice. Once you give notice you have two years to figure out how you are going to break up, if you can’t figure it out by then you just get kicked out unless if everyone extends the process. It is a bit like breaking up with your partner, then continuing to live with them for two years but they own the house and the furniture.
The UK and the EU will need to figure out a number of things during that time frame including:
- What access the UK will have to the EU’s common market.
- What rights British citizens living in the EU and EU citizens living in the UK will have.
- What this means for Gibraltar, the small British enclave long coveted by Spain.
- What this will mean for Scotland and Northern Ireland, both for which voted to stay in the EU and are now agitating to leave the UK and stay in the EU.
- Which European laws will apply in the UK if any.
Simultaneously the UK will need to figure out its role in global institutions like the WTO and negotiate trade deals with everyone that had a trade deal with the EU. The only clear winners here are lawyers that negotiate government deals.
The process is such a huge pain that it is no wonder that Cameron doesn’t want to trigger Article 50.
How do the Europeans feel about all this?
The EU has reacted with its traditional mix of childishness and contradiction. Clearly upset that British voters spurned them and not wanting prolonged uncertainty the EU’s finance ministers want the UK to push for Article 50 right away.
Others, like Angela Merkel, have said that there is no need to be “particularly nasty” about the whole business and are happy to wait a while, presumably until the UK figures out what a bad idea this whole thing is. In the meantime they’ve all decided not to talk to the UK until it formally triggers Article 50.
So… what happens now?
It looks like things are going to get worse before they get even worse. Cameron has thrown the hot potato (potAto) into the air and no one seems too keen to catch it. Meanwhile, British politics has essentially become Game of Thrones meets Downton Abbey where instead of killing each other politicians deliver stern words then resign.
In the meantime the uncertainty is going to cast a chill on any major investment decisions by businesses and individuals. Financial services, a big part of London’s economy, is particularly sensitive to government regulation and might bringing in some jobs and functions to other EU nations. We are already seeing some of the effect from the Brexit decision, with the pound at a 30 year low, the stock market down and S&P taking away the UK’s triple A credit rating.
Could they Brexnot?
It is possible that the UK just doesn’t end up leaving the EU.
The process is long, hard and uncertain. No one knows what they want from leaving the EU, which would make forming a government and conducting negotiations incredibly confusing. Meanwhile, the economic pain will start adding up making some people have Bremorse and eventually we are going to run out of ways to add “Br” to the beginnings of words.
Already four million people signed a petition to ask for a re-run and, let’s be honest, it would be the European thing to do. After all, Ireland and Denmark both got a second chance in the past and Greece didn’t even bother having a second referendum after last year’s circus…
Last Updated: 8 AM EST July 11th
Correction: A previous version of this post wrongly asserted Gibraltar was an island. It isn’t… We know, it blew our minds as well.
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