As a result of a long and divisive campaign this June, the British people voted to leave the European Union after more than four decades of UK membership. The aftermath of the referendum has left the country deeply split. Many are still questioning what direction the UK is heading in and what its future relationship with Europe will be as a consequence of the vote. With Prime Minister Theresa May indicating she will trigger Article 50, the formal mechanism for leaving the European Union, in March of 2017, there remains a vast amount of details for the UK civil service to work through. Cabinet ministers will be working around the clock in an attempt to gain the best possible outcome for the UK in its negotiations and future relations with other countries outside of the EU. Make no mistake, this is a mighty task for all layers of the British government.
Many pundits have indicated that there are, generally speaking, two clear options for the UK. The first is a so-called “Soft Brexit,” and the second a “Hard Brexit.”A Soft Brexit would leave the UK with a relationship that closely resembles its previous membership, but with reduced influence, if any at all, in Brussels. The reduction in influence is likely due to the probable outcome of a “Soft Brexit” negotiating approach – that outcome being that the UK would lose its seat on the EU council, its MEP’s, and its commissioner, while retaining full access to the EU single market. This would be in return for paying into the EU Budget and continuing to allow freedom of movement.
A “Hard Brexit” approach, conversely, would likely force the UK to give up full access to the EU single market in order to prioritize the UK having full control of its borders, making free trade deals across the globe, and applying laws within its own territory. Each “type” of Brexit indicates how closely tied to the European Union the UK will be after the negotiation period ends. Many “remainers,” or “remoaners” – as some Brexiteers like to call them – favor a Soft Brexit approach, whereas most (but not all) Brexiteers prefer a Hard Brexit.
The slogan of the Leave campaign was “Take back control.” If control is not taken back by removing the primacy of EU law over UK law via the complete removal of the 1972 European communities act, many Leave voters will likely insist that May’s vision of Brexit will not have gone far enough in fulfilling the Leave campaign’s promises. The Leave campaign assured those who voted to secede from the EU that, by leaving, the UK would be able to negotiate various trade agreements with countries around the globe, particularly members of the Commonwealth, which is an international organization of 52 countries that are linked primarily due to formerly being under British rule. This may become a reality as Australian negotiators are already lining up to secure a trade deal with post-Brexit Britain.
If there is no Hard Brexit, these possible agreements will not occur unless the UK leaves the European Union completely. Under the current rules, EU countries cannot make separate trade deals with individual member states or non-EU countries. Signing numerous new trade deals with countries across the globe would show the world that the UK remains a nation open for business. In addition to this, a Soft Brexit is really no Brexit at all if the UK has to compromise on freedom of movement and pay into the EU budget, as these are things that Leave voters were strongly against. A Hard Brexit is favored by the so-called “Three Brexiteers” of Boris Johnson, Liam Fox, and David Davis. With Theresa May’s new Brexit Commission being primarily made up of Leave voters, it is not likely that the UK government will opt for a soft Brexit.
The British people have been debating the benefits and drawbacks of EU membership now for many decades. 52% of the British public voted to leave the EU. That vote cannot be ignored. A Hard Brexit, which returns to the UK sovereignty and money (by stopping payments to the EU budget), is the only option for the government to sufficiently satisfy the Leave vote. Any half-hearted extraction from the EU would lead to continued debate over whether Brexit has been delivered upon while reinvigorating feuds of the past. The Brexit vote leaves many challenges for the UK but also many opportunities. For example, the UK has a trade surplus with the EU, which could help the British negotiating position. Despite the possible benefits and risks, however, freedom of movement must end in order to satisfy the Leave vote. The UK must also cease to pay EU budget contributions and not be under the jurisdiction of EU courts – only a Hard Brexit can deliver this, and getting a good deal will require creative thinking. But if these particular issues are not dealt with, the Leave voters will not be content – and, in the 2020 election, Theresa May’s government will suffer at the ballot box.
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