26th Jan 2021


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.

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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.


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