The United Kingdom’s 2016 decision to leave the European Union has resulted in a fractured British nation plagued by continuous debate. This secession has left the countries of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland shaken and uncertain.
Brexit ensured that the year 2016 was defined by a historic change in British foreign policy. In a constitutionally rare referendum, the British Government asked its citizens whether they wished for their country to remain in or leave the European Union. The country voted to secede from the EU by a very slim margin, and the government at Westminster began negotiations for their formal exit (Glencross). Around seven years later, the British government and people alike have only begun to feel the consequences of such a monumental decision. So, did they make the right choice?
Brexit, as the infamous UK-EU separation has come to be known, has proven disastrous in a multitude of ways. Between the widespread domestic dissent and political upheaval following the United Kingdom’s abrupt exit, the looming border crisis between the Republic of Ireland and the UK’s Northern Ireland, and the profound economic consequences, Brexit has proved to be harmful not only to the United Kingdom but also to the status quo of international relations.
To understand the crisis currently facing the United Kingdom, one must know that the decision to leave the European Union was far from unanimous. In 2016, when the referendum occurred, just over 51 percent of those who went to the polls voted to separate from the European Union. Although this constitutes a majority, it is important to note that the distribution of those in favor and those against was uneven throughout the four countries of the UK.
While the majorities in the political powerhouse of England and the less influential country of Wales voted to leave the EU, the majorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain (Glencross). The latter two countries have histories that are fraught with memories of English oppression, domination, and subjugation. In the minds of many, Brexit was the final straw. In Scotland, demands for independence, led by the Scottish Nationalist Party as well as those who consider themselves to be pro-European, have gained momentum in the wake of Brexit (Curtice). This, combined with the tensions in Northern Ireland, has caused many to reevaluate their loyalties to the United Kingdom.
One of the most important cornerstones of British-Irish relations is the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, which helped bring peace and stability to the divided island of Ireland (“The Good Friday Agreement at Twenty Years”). Brexit has directly jeopardized this arrangement.
At the core of the Good Friday Agreement lies the open border policy between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. This stipulation for peace was made possible by both countries' membership within the European Union (“The Good Friday Agreement at Twenty Years”). Now that the United Kingdom has decided to leave the EU and close its borders, the stability that has been present in Ireland for the past few decades is under threat. Although an agreement has recently been reached between the governments of the United Kingdom and the European Union that allows for dual citizenship and an open border, tensions, especially those surrounding trade, are still high (“UK and EU Formally Adopt New Brexit Windsor Framework Deal”). The world may witness a resurgence of the Troubles – a bloody and violent partisan conflict between the Nationalists and Unionists of Northern Ireland.
The 2016 Brexit referendum was not the first time the question of the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union was posed to the British and Northern Irish electorate. In 1975, just two years after the UK joined the European Economic Community (EEC), the precursor to the European Union, the British government asked its people if they supported membership. The electorate voted to remain within the EEC, but British uncertainty towards its European partners continued (Matthijs).
When the United Kingdom first joined the European Union in the early 1970s, the UK was facing economic ruin and financial catastrophe. The British government had been forced to devalue the pound, unemployment was rampant, and the United Kingdom had become the first developed country to seek a loan from the International Monetary Fund. EEC membership provided hope for economic revival (Matthijs). As a result of this mindset, the United Kingdom has always been different in regard to its views on European unity. The British regarded the European Union as an economic partnership and trade agreement, but for the rest of Europe, the EU represented much more.
The European Union was a means not only to provide post-war prosperity but it also allowed the countries of Europe to claim a joint European identity and history. It allowed these countries to unite under one umbrella; however, the British continued to view themselves as unique and separate. They possessed a different outlook concerning the EU; therefore, while the vast majority of states in continental Europe and the Republic of Ireland have vigorously supported the EU, the United Kingdom has been more hesitant. British foreign policy has almost always focused more extensively on the UK’s relationships with the Commonwealth and the United States than with the rest of Europe (Ludlow). This, combined with the UK’s economic mindset as well as an accelerating widespread anti-immigration sentiment and nostalgia for the fallen British Empire, have only exacerbated a Eurosceptic distrust of the EU.
The United Kingdom may have been a strange partner within the European Union, but despite this, it has benefited immensely from its EU membership. The nation’s economy emerged from the 1970s intact and even experienced a period of prosperity. However, despite this, the British government still names money as a primary reason for leaving the EU (Crafts). Irritated by the perceived surrender of sovereignty to an international organization and the required financial obligations that accompanied membership, the United Kingdom staged a dramatic exit from one of the most successful international coalitions in the world (Crafts).
Now, the United Kingdom has forced itself to reevaluate its foreign policies, trade agreements, and immigration and passport requirements. This has created a bureaucratic nightmare for the UK government. Furthermore, after thriving in the EU single market, they must rebalance a post-Brexit economy rapidly descending into ruin. They must also work to ensure peace and stability in Scotland and Northern Ireland, both of which are experiencing a resurgence of anti-British sentiment. Making the situation all the more chaotic, Westminster must do all of this in the face of political unrest and separatist movements. The negative consequences of Brexit loom large over the country and symbolize uncertainty. Surely, it makes one wonder what the future has in store for the United Kingdom.
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Curtice, John. “High noon for the Union?.” Progressive Review (December 2020).
Glencross, Andrew. Why the UK Voted for Brexit: David Cameron’s Great Miscalculation.
London: Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 2016.
“The Good Friday Agreement at Twenty Years: Achievements and Unfinished Business,”
Hearing Before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the 115th
Congress, Second Session, March 22, 2018.
Ludlow, N. Piers. “The Historical Roots of the ‘Awkward Partner’ Narrative.” Contemporary
European History 28, no. 1 (2019): 35-38.
Matthijs, Matthias M. Ideas and Economic Crises in Britain from Attlee to Blair (1945-2005).
New York: Routledge, 2011.
“UK and EU Formally Adopt New Brexit Windsor Framework Deal.” BBC News. March 24, 2023.
Editor's note: This article uses MLA citations and a bibliography in order to cite sources that cannot be hyperlinked.
Kaymen Noel Story is a second-year student double majoring in International Studies and Political Science. She is a Staff Writer for the Agora.
Image courtesy: The British Parliament and Big Ben | Openverse