Tuesday

26th Jan 2021

Magazine

2016: Brexit - A shock to the system

  • Britain's EU ambassador, Tim Barrow, hands the written notification on the UK's wish to leave to EU to then European Council president Donald Tusk, in 2017 (Photo: Council of the European Union)

The evening of 23 June 2016, the day British voters decided whether to leave to European Union, had an unnerving feel to it in Brussels.

An unrelenting summer storm painted the sky with double rainbows and lightening, creating an eerie, out-of-place, out-of-time overture to the vote.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

The next morning's shock of the UK deciding to leave the bloc it had joined in 1973, by 52 percent to 48 percent, left everyone scrambling for answers: is this real, what does this mean, how will it be done?

British prime minister David Cameron, who opened the door for a referendum but campaigned for Remain, quit the day after the plebiscite, leaving his successor, Theresa May, to figure out what kind of Brexit the UK really wanted.

The EU moved relatively quickly, amid fears others might follow Britain's example.

In July, the EU Commission appointed French politician, Michel Barnier as the bloc's chief Brexit negotiator, and set out the choreography of two-phased negotiations based on the succinct (in fact, just five sentences) Article 50 of the EU treaty.

May, having lost her majority in the British parliament after a snap election, bowed to pressure from hardline Brexiteers in her own party, and pushed for a hard exit, aiming to untangle the complicated economic and trade ties with the EU.

The referendum was one of several elections around the world that exposed a deep division in different societies, seemingly fuelled by fears around migration, a decade of austerity slashing public services, and frustration with an ever-more globalised elite.

It also put the spotlight on how social media platforms were used, willingly and unwillingly, for political campaigning, and how Russia interfered with the vote.

Brexit shook UK politics to its core, re-emboldened Scottish independence calls, and even led to discussions on the possibility of Irish unification.

It also ultimately resulted in the premiership of Boris Johnson, one of the biggest faces of the Leave campaign, and pushed the ruling Conservative party further to the right.

In October 2019 after much - mostly British - political drama, a divorce deal was reached. The UK officially left the EU on 31 January 2020, with its transition period concluding at the end of 2020, when all ties will break.

The EU and UK are still negotiating on what shape the future relationship should take as this magazine went to press.

One of the key demands of the EU in the divorce talks was to secure the rights of 4.5 million British and EU citizens who settled in the EU and Britain respectively, believing the EU's free movement principle would protect them for life.

They were the first casualties of Brexit.

Elena Remigi, an Italian-born interpreter who had lived in the UK for over a decade, is one of them.

"I remember the shock, the disbelief," she told EUobserver of the day after the referendum, adding that the "othering", particularly of immigrants, had an impact in the vote.

"It felt like the carpet has been pulled from under us," she said.

Remigi founded the In Limbo Project to compile, in two books, personal accounts of EU and British citizens whose futures are now in doubt.

It shed a light on the solidarity among EU citizens who helped each other when many felt the certainty of the life they had build for themselves was gone.

To retain their existing rights, EU citizens had to apply for a so-called "settled status" - it was not an automatic right.

Now EU citizens fight for a physical proof of the settled status - crucial for the elderly, for instance, in case of hospital care - not only digital, which the government has so far denied.

There is a fear people might be wrongly deported, as in the case of the 'Windrush' scandal of long-standing Caribbean immigrants in 2018.

Remigi said she had seen the rhetoric against immigrants changing people's minds heading into the election. She has now acquired citizenship.

Remigi, who describes herself as an Anglophile in love with the language and literature, says Brexit changed her relationship with the country.

"It is like falling out of love with someone, and there is a sense of betrayal," she said.

Liberal, vibrant, diverse, open, a brand in itself, one of two European nuclear powers, and trade-friendly but regulation-averse, the UK will be sorely missed from the EU.

The power balance inevitably shifts in the bloc after Brexit, with the Netherlands stepping up to fill London's 'neo-liberal' shoes on the EU budget, trade and rule of law. Meanwhile France, as the sole nuclear power, wants a more assertive global Europe.

When asked if he had any regrets, former EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said the EU should have taken a role in the Brexit referendum.

"I was wrong to be silent at an important moment," he rued.

This article first appeared in EUobserver's latest magazine, 20 years of European journalism & history, which you can now read in full online.

Analysis

Key points of the Brexit deal (if it ever comes into effect)

The main points of the Brexit withdrawal deal between London and Brussels dissected. Although the EU is preparing to sign the agreement, the UK government has been rocked by resignations since its publication less than 24 hours ago.

UK votes to leave EU, causes shockwaves

Britons vote to leave the EU by 51.9 percent. Pound is at its lowest since 1985. Scotland and Northern Ireland at odds with England and Wales.

Interview

2018: Juncker: Far-right 'never had a chance' against the EU

The far-right rose in power over the span of 2017 and 2018. But for former EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, they never posed a real threat. "They are not right because their basic societal analysis is wrong," he said.

Interview

2020: EU solidarity tested in face of Covid-19 pandemic

When decisive, coordinated action from EU institutions and member states was most needed to respond to the first coronavirus outbreaks, the bloc struggled to find a common and timely response. What lessons have been learned?

Interview

2019: EU's Green Deal - a global 'gold standard'?

All EU action on the climate stands at the crossroads between domestic ambition and international cooperation - especially with the G20 countries, which are responsible for about 80 percent of all global emissions.

News in Brief

  1. AstraZeneca told to meet EU vaccine supply commitments
  2. Estonia to get first woman prime minister
  3. Turkey and Greece to hold Mediterranean security talks
  4. Dutch police detain 240 in anti-lockdown protests
  5. Renewables overtake fossil fuels in EU electricity mix
  6. France's top scientist warns of corona 'emergency'
  7. Growing appetite for Northern Ireland independence
  8. Surge in support for Portuguese far-right party

20 years of EUobserver

Our special anniversary magazine gives an overview of the major events of these past 20 years - and, for every event, we talked to one of the key players. It makes this magazine a document of recent EU history.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAEU Code of Conduct can showcase PPPs delivering healthier more sustainable society
  2. CESIKlaus Heeger and Romain Wolff re-elected Secretary General and President of independent trade unions in Europe (CESI)
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersWomen benefit in the digitalised labour market
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersReport: The prevalence of men who use internet forums characterised by misogyny
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic climate debate on 17 November!
  6. UNESDAMaking healthier diets the easy choice

Latest News

  1. Navalny protests sharpen EU sanctions talks
  2. Why Russia politics threaten European security
  3. MEPs call for workers to have 'right to disconnect'
  4. Reality bites EU's 'No More Morias' pledge
  5. Ten years on from Tahrir: EU's massive missed opportunity
  6. Vaccine delay and Russia sanctions debates This WEEK
  7. Will EU ever take action to stop Israeli settlements?
  8. EU leaders keep open borders, despite new corona variant risk

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us