Sep 28th, 2019, 04:51 PM

The Rocky Road To Brexit

By Amy Thorpe
Boris Johnson. Image credit: Flickr/The Naked Ape
Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces negotiation backlash

Following successive failed attempts to negotiate the terms of Britain's exit from the European Union, Johnson is leading the country through the rocky final stages of a back-and-forth that has taken place for over three years.

Brexit: A Brief Overview

Brexit began as a result of long-lasting concerns within Britain's Conservative and Independent parties about what the United Kingdom was gaining by staying in the EU. Throughout debates over whether a referendum should be held, David Cameron, prime minister at the time, remained true to his stance that the UK ought to continue its participation in the coalition.

"I believe that, despite its faults and its frustrations, the United Kingdom is stronger, safer and better off by remaining a member of the European Union," said Cameron during a speech in May of 2016. 

Ultimately though, Cameron was pressured by the British Parliament to hold a referendum in June of 2016. The referendum regarded the question of whether the UK should leave or remain in the EU. Of these votes, 51.89% were in favor of leaving and 48.11% were in favor of staying in the EU. 

"I think discontent within the state of Britain is what motivated people to look for change by means of the Brexit referendum," commented Pauline Davis, a British native who has spent the last several years living in America. Davis went on to explain with "that being said, looking back I don’t think people really grasped the gravity of their votes, which is why it was surprising for the entire country that such a momentous change was set into motion by what seemed like a routine, insignificant democratic process." 

The Union Jack and European Flag fly side by side. Image credit: Flickr/David Kellam

The day after the results were released, Cameron relinquished his role as prime minister, handing off Brexit negotiation responsibilities to Theresa May, who won the Conservative Party leadership contest in July of 2016. 

With her entry into office, May brought determination to achieve a "hard Brexit," which would mean completely severing ties with the EU, including the single market and customs union. However, May's authority on Brexit took a blow following her loss of parliamentary majority in a snap general election held about a year later in June of 2017. This election jeopardized her initial plans and complicated negotiations between Britain's political parties. 

With no alternative, deliberations moved forward, resulting in a preliminary deal split into two parts: a Withdrawal Agreement outlining the terms of the UK's exit from the EU, and a Political Declaration detailing how the political relationship between the two will continue after the separation. 

Boris Johnson, Foreign Secretary at the time, and Brexit Secretary David Davis resigned from their positions in protest of May's Withdraw Agreement in 2018.


One of the main issues that motivated their decision to step down and that is continuing to plague negotiations is that of the Irish backstop

Put simply, the term "backstop" represents a back-up plan to be put into action if a permanent trading agreement is not made with the EU within the 21-month transition period after the UK leaves. It aims to keep an open border with Ireland, with a few restrictions on trade. Disagreement on this section of the Withdrawal Agreement was a major cause of the resistance May faced in Parliament.

Having been forced to push back Brexit's deadline twice and failing three times to get her deal ratified over the course of her three years in office, May stepped down as Prime Minister during June of this year. 

"I will shortly leave the job that it has been the honor of my life to hold," she noted in her resignation speech back in May. "I do so with no ill-will, but with enormous and enduring gratitude to have had the opportunity to serve the country I love."

Johnson's Role in Brexit

On June 24th, 2019, Boris Johnson took the reigns as Prime Minister, having won the Conservative party leadership election with 66% of the vote. Within the month, he selected a cabinet of Brexit supporters, reiterating his campaign commitment to "deliver Brexit, unite the country and defeat Jeremy Corbyn."

PM Boris Johnson visits Northern Ireland, the heart of the Brexit debate. Image credit: Flickr/UK Prime Minister

"I think he's not the most competent leader to do this, but I also think to push for a no-deal Brexit doesn't benefit anyone involved; he just wants to get a deal done so he can go down in history as the one who was able to do it," commented British-Canadian and AUP Junior Sophie Haines.

In what has been his most controversial act as prime minister to date, in August, Johnson requested that Queen Elizabeth II delay the reconvening of Parliament from its arranged suspension for yearly party conferences. The schedule dictated that that Parliament would resume during the beginning two weeks of September and then break until 9 October. However, Johnson's request, approved by the Queen as a formality, proposed that this date be pushed back until 14 October. 

Outraged critics of Johnson claimed that he was simply trying to narrow the window in which the Brexit opposition could resist his deal, the deadline being October 31st. 

“Shutting down parliament would be an offense against the democratic process and the rights of parliamentarians as the people’s elected representatives,” noted John Bercow, Speaker of the Commons.

A legal case was quickly brought against Johnson by his opposition, handled initially by the English high court and the Scottish appeal court, who produced different rulings. To settle the matter fully, the case was sent to the UK's Supreme Court, which held an emergency three-day hearing to deliberate the legality of Johnson's advice to the Queen. 

On 24 September, a unanimous verdict was announced by Supreme Court President Brenda Hale: Johnson's decision to suspend Parliament for five weeks was unlawful. 

Supreme Court ruling. Source: Youtube

"The decision to advise Her Majesty to prorogue Parliament was unlawful because it had the effect of frustrating or preventing the ability of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions without reasonable justification," stated Hale as she delivered the court's verdict.

“This means that when the royal commissioners walked into the House of Lords [to prorogue parliament] it was as if they walked in with a blank sheet of paper," she continued. "The prorogation was also void and of no effect. Parliament has not been prorogued.”

Johnson, who has faced a barrage of calls to resign, said he "profoundly disagreed" with the verdict but would "respect" it. On 25 September, during the first session of parliament since the ruling, the Prime Minister encountered heated backlash from angry MPs. "Come on," he challenged the oppositional parties, calling upon them to vote no-confidence and to trigger a general election. 

In the midst of such chaos, it is unclear how exactly Brexit will end. One thing is for sure, though: Britain is not the same country as it was when the entire process began. 

The Pubic's View of Britain

Pro-EU protesters in London . Image credit: Flickr/urbanbensci

"Once, we used to hold up British parliamentary life as the Rolls-Royce of liberal democracy," commented Sylvie Kauffmann, editorial director and contributor of France's Le Monde. Kauffmann's words speak to a global shift in perspective concerning the status of Britain on the world stage. Through Brexit, what was regarded as an example of democratic governing at its best has had its flaws revealed. When the UK left the matter of their membership in the EU up to its people, it crossed a point of no return. 

Perhaps it is here where the true failure of British democracy lies. The man on the street does not know the ins and outs of the European Union, and what it means to be a part of it. To make matters worse, false claims were made on both sides of the Brexit campaigns, ranging from the money Britain would save to the immigration rates from other EU countries.

All in all, voters were not provided with sufficient information to make a well-founded decision about Britain's future, and the UK government was certainly not equipped to handle an unexpected outcome. 

"I think people are wondering what else could possibly go wrong," commented Haines. "It's frankly pretty embarrassing that the vote was that long ago and there has not been a lot of progress made. You have so many people saying they would have never voted in favor of Brexit had they known what the deal was going to be, so many citizens have lost faith."

Three years later, Britain's reputation has been dragged through the mud by the efforts of politicians to clean up the mess they started. Boris Johnson is one of the country's remaining hopes to finish Brexit, which adds all the more weight to the mistakes he has been making. 

With luck, Brexit could be done by the end of the year. But this will only be the first step on Britain's path to recovery; in reality, the healing of the country's reputation will take much longer.