(CN) – The channel that separates the United Kingdom and Europe is widening – politically, socially, economically. Brexit day is here and with it many fear the future will be worse for people on both sides of the English Channel – or, as the French say, La Manche.
At 11 p.m. in London (midnight in Brussels), the formal separation of the U.K. from the European Union will take effect, 1,317 days after British voters in June 2016 shocked the world by choosing to reject continuing their membership in the EU, the world’s largest trading bloc, and opt for an uncertain go-it-alone future.
It was a referendum result layered with meanings: A revolt against multi-nationalism, globalization, elites, immigrants, a growing European state. British exceptionalism and a pining for a past when Britain was an empire moved people to vote in favor of Brexit too.
The drive to exit the EU was won also thanks to a campaign of deceit, misinformation and fear-mongering by those championing Brexit – most notably the man who now resides in No. 10 Downing Street, Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Even with Brexit finally taking place, the debate over this divorce is far from over in the U.K. Celebrations and protests are taking place in London. Nasty arguments and taunts between so-called leavers and remainers continue on social media. New political fights are brewing: An EU flag is still flying over the Scottish parliament building in Edinburgh and Scottish leaders are demanding that Scotland be allowed to hold an independence referendum so it can rejoin the EU as its own nation.
In reality, very little is going to change immediately. Until at least the end of the year, the U.K. will remain aligned to EU rules, laws and courts with trade and travel carrying on as it has. The U.K. will even continue its payments into the EU budget until then.
In the meantime, the two sides will enter into complex talks to find agreement on everything from trade and defense to fishing rights and aviation rules. The EU wants the U.K. to abide by European rules in exchange for full access to its large market, but the U.K. is looking to scrap many of those rules as it seeks to compete with the EU and sign new trade deals.
For now, Brexit fans are crowing and declare the future bright.
“This is the moment when the dawn breaks and the curtain goes up on a new act,” Johnson is set to say in prerecorded remarks to celebrate the U.K.’s departure.
Pro-Brexit newspapers are chiming in too: “Our Time Has Come,” the Sun tabloid blared on its front page, saying Britain had thrown off the “creeping danger of a European superstate.”
But it’s far from clear if either side will come out of this better off.
Britain stands to lose economically – already, its economy has been hurt by Brexit and some companies have fled. Politically, its clout may be diminished. Its citizens, meanwhile, may face barriers to living, studying and working in the EU in the future and British companies may find it harder to recruit workers. Also, Brexit poses existential problems to the U.K.’s nationhood because a majority of people in Scotland and Northern Ireland voted against Brexit and independence drives are growing in both regions.
“After the referendum I was asked by a paper (after listing a long list of negative impacts) about any upsides to Brexit,” said Fabian Zuleeg, chief economist at the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think tank, on Twitter. “My view then and now: there are none. Self-harm at a monumental scale, destroying opportunities for next generations plus collateral damage for the EU.”
The Guardian newspaper echoed this outlook on its front page Friday: “Small island,” read a subdued headline over a photo of a small union jack sticking out of sand castle on a beach with the white cliffs of Dover in the background.
With the U.K.’s departure, the EU will lose 15% of its economy, 66 million citizens, 5% of its territory, the financial capital of London and a nuclear-armed permanent member of the U.N. Security Council with global reach through its embassies, spy network and English language.
“[Brexit] weakens Britain more than the EU, but there is no getting away from the fact that seeing a major member state leave the European Union will weaken the union,” said Michael Leigh, academic director in European public policy at the Johns Hopkins University campus in Bologna, in a telephone interview Friday.
He said the EU will carry less weight in trade and on security matters without the U.K.: “It reduces the credibility of the EU.”
The loss of the U.K. will alter the political equation in Europe too: Until now, France, Germany and the U.K. were the big players in EU decisions. Now, this three-sided debate is turning into a two-sided one, he said.
“There has been a balance of power between these three,” Leigh said. “You will now not have a big three but a big two. France’s position will be strengthened at the core of EU decision making.”
That’s because Germany and the U.K. often were in agreement in many areas, including on freer trade policy, pushing for a single market within the EU and expanding the bloc’s membership. France, meanwhile, tended to favor restricting trade and it was hesitant about adding new members, such as those in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. However, militarily France and Britain tended to want to exert power beyond Europe.
Leigh said he expects Britain’s departure to weaken the EU’s free-trade orientation. He also said countries like Poland and Sweden that don’t use the euro, the bloc’s single currency, may find it harder without the U.K. to fend off efforts to see them adopt the euro. Britain retained its currency, the pound, one of several exceptions to EU rules that the U.K. won for itself during its 47 years of EU membership.
But it’s not as though Brexit was born only a few years ago. In fact, the U.K.’s participation in the “European project,” as the EU is called, was fraught with difficulties from the outset.
After World War II, former French President Charles de Gaulle warned against allowing an “incompatible” Britain to join the economic union that was beginning to form out of the ruins of the war, and France vetoed its membership requests.
In the 1960s and 1970s, it was Britain’s left wing that was skeptical about joining the European common market for they believed it was a capitalist project. By the 1980s, those on the right in Britain began to worry that power was being centralized in Brussels.
In a famous speech in 1988, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher warned of a European superstate threatening Britain’s sovereignty. She was opposed to the growing need for common rules as the EU’s single market expanded.
Euroskepticism among Britain’s right wing grew, stoked by a conservative and anti-EU British press, including Johnson, the current prime minister, who attacked the EU during his years as a Brussels-based correspondent. Anti-European sentiment grew even louder after the 2008 financial crisis and the electoral successes of a right-wing nationalist party, the U.K. Independence Party, under the leadership of Nigel Farage and his anti-EU message.
By 2014, Farage’s party easily won the U.K. elections for the European Parliament, posing a major threat to the Conservative Party. To fend off Farage, then-Prime Minister David Cameron fatefully called for a referendum on EU membership. Cameron thought he could quiet the revolt against the EU by holding a referendum where a majority was expected to vote to remain in the EU.
Instead, the opposite happened: The leavers won, in no small part because the referendum took place at a time of deep anxiety in Europe as millions of refugees from war-torn and poverty-struck Asia and Africa arrived in Europe and attacks by Islamist terrorists were heightening fears.
Leigh, the Johns Hopkins University professor, said Brexit was not inevitable, but he said it “came down to major leadership failures” by Britain’s political leaders.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)