Editorial of November 2019

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 by Allan F. Tatham, Professor at Facultad de Derecho, Universidad San Pablo CEU


“Does Britain have a great future behind it?”: The stress of Brexit on a (Dis)United Kingdom

Introduction

Whatever the results of the British general election on 12 December 2019, Brexit will have major implications for the populations and governance arrangements of the four nations – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – and their continuing membership of the United Kingdom (UK). The present author has already discussed the constitutional implications of a vote to leave the European Union (EU).[i] This discussion instead will briefly highlight how the results of that referendum and the ensuing three years or so have increasingly led two of the smaller “devolved” nations (England makes up over 85% of the UK’s total population of some 66.5 million people) to reassess their position in the UK.

The Brexit referendum itself of June 2016 revealed both inter-nation and intra-nation division. According to the figures,[ii] majorities in England and Wales voted to leave, while most voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland (as well as Gibraltar) opted for remain. Yet even these results are more nuanced than first appear: London also voted to remain as did some other cities (e.g., Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle) though by differing margins. Moreover recent research[iii] has shown that in Wales, areas with predominantly Welsh-speakers had voted to remain (as did Cardiff) while many of the 21% English-born voters had voted leave. The picture in Northern Ireland was no less complex: there, the nationalist community voted overwhelmingly for remain, while the unionist community voted largely (though much less decisively) for leave.

Northern Ireland

Of the four nations, this is the one most directly affected by Brexit since it will be the only part of the UK with an external border with the EU (Ireland). It is also the only devolved nation, according to the 1998 Good Friday/Belfast Peace Agreement, that has in effect the legal right to secede from the UK, once a referendum has been held. In fact the most intractable issue in the Brexit negotiations has proved to be finding a solution to the Northern Irish trilemma: fulfilling the UK Government’s promise to leave the EU customs union and single market; to preserve British “territorial integrity”; and to continue its commitment to the peace agreement. However, leaving the customs union and single market would have meant the re-imposition a hard (or physical) border between the North and the South of the island of Ireland, entailing checks and customs duties: this represented for all parties a direct threat to the peace agreements. A way forward out of this trilemma was needed in order to avoid (or at least minimise) the immense social and economic dislocation implicit in a no-deal Brexit; this presented the negotiators with an immense task.
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