On June 23, 2016, a very small majority of British voters decided to change the course of the UK and of Europe. In a popular referendum initiated by then Prime Minister David Cameron, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union behind. This British exit of the EU, or Brexit, has been at the top of the news cycle for the three years since, as Parliament tries to cope with the political and practical realities of this drastic move.
But what exactly is Brexit, why is it complicated, and what effects does it have on a tourist here in the UK? I’m going to try to explain a few of these things from about 100,000 feet up, with the caveat that things are ever flowing and changing here on the ground, and what is true today may not be factual anymore tomorrow.
(Note: the photos here are from an anti-Brexit march that was said to attract nearly a million people in London.)
A Brief History of the Referendum
Let’s begin in 1993, when the European Union was formed (although its predecessors date back decades prior). The United Kingdom was a founding member, and is fully participatory in the European single market, allowing for the free movement of people, goods, services, and capital across all of the EU. However, the UK did not opt into the single currency (the Euro), the Schengen area (meaning there are different visa requirements for foreigners entering (along with Ireland, more on that later) than the rest of Europe, or the metric system.
Despite the overall success of the EU on many fronts, there has always been a political wing in the UK that was resentful of some basic decisions being made in Brussels (seat of the EU), as opposed to London. As part of its 2015 election strategy, the Conservative Party (which itself was split on the issue) promised to issue a popular non-binding referendum on whether to remain in the EU or leave. It did so to encourage Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party to join it, for while the UKIP had no seats in Parliament, it was taking votes from the Conservatives. Prime Minister David Cameron believed that the issue would be decided in favor of “remain,” and he campaigned very strongly on the issue.
The referendum was decided with 51.9% voting “leave” and Cameron immediately resigned.
The immediate aftermath was filled with accusations by the “remain” faction of the public being misled by those pushing the “leave” agenda, and apparently there is merit to those accusations. However, the government has been staunch in negotiating with the EU over Brexit terms and not considering a second referendum. These negotiations are now more than three years old, having been extended on several occasions.
One of the main sticking points is Ireland. The 1999 Good Friday Agreement that ended partisan fighting in Northern Ireland is contingent on there not being a “hard” border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK. (This is the reason for Ireland also not being part of Schengen, as mentioned earlier.) However, a UK withdrawal from the EU would lead to either a hard customs border between the two (as Ireland is part of the EU and will remain so), or a customs zone in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The former would potentially lead to renewed partisan fighting, and the latter is unacceptable to hardline unity members of Parliament, without whose vote the government (first of Theresa May and now Boris Johnson) would not seem to have a majority to pass any negotiated deal.
Several deals have been negotiated, but with a very slim Parliamentary majority, none have been close to being approved, as the equally unpopular opposition parties have seemingly decided to not support any deal, sitting on the position that a second referendum is needed, along with new elections.
So here we are, three years later, and seemingly no closer to a deal than before, with neither side willing to budge. Public opinion is fairly unanimous in that – regardless of whether one supports Brexit or not – the government has bungled the thing immensely. It is unclear if a second referendum would pass or not, although my unofficial polling of pretty much everyone I’ve spoken to has yielded results strongly in support of “remain,” with the sole voice for Brexit being due to “the imminent taking over of Europe by Muslims and Shariah law,” something both vilely xenophobic and incredibly misinformed.
Impact on Tourists
First off, let’s consider the immediate impact of the current situation of a rather unknown future. Brexit is on everyone’s mind, and you will overhear conversations about it consistently. As with unwanted foreign commentary on American politics, it’s probably best to keep our opinions to ourselves and our friends. This is a British issue, one that they themselves need to sort out.
However, there is some day to day logistical impact, as protests are frequent occurrences, especially in London. These can shut downs areas, like right around Parliament, and cause issues seeing some of the main tourist sights in the area, such as Westminster Abbey.
The uncertainty has also led to a drop in value in the British pound, meaning your dollars will go a bit further here right now. It is, therefore, a good time to visit from a financial perspective.
Should Brexit go through, impact on Americans will be fairly limited. Visa requirements are already different in the UK than in the rest of the EU. However, the loss of the single market will mean that changing planes in London on our way to another European destination will become significantly more of a hassle, requiring customs and security both in London and again in the next destination.
I have zero basis for issuing a prediction on what will happen, but since nobody will expect an American to get it right, I also have nothing to lose and fame to gain. Again, be forewarned this is nothing but a hunch on my part, and has nothing to do with what I believe should happen.
I believe that a Brexit deal will ultimately be struck. The country has gone through this process for three years, and appetite for a repeat is probably slim. The referendum did, after all, pass, and even if it was a stupid thing to have the public vote on this to begin with, vote they did and it should matter.
Once it goes through, I believe one of two things will happen. First, the UK realizes it was a mistake, and that it is better off in the EU. They will, in this circumstance, ask to come back, and they will be allowed, as the economic power of the UK is hugely beneficial to Europe. However, there will be additional conditions put on this reunification, such as adoption of the Euro and participation in the Schengen zone.
The second possible scenario to my amateur thinking is that Brexit will be the end of the UK. With a likely outcome being a customs barrier in the Irish Sea, it may only be a matter of time before Northern Ireland reunites with the Republic. Scotland, as well, could exit to remain part of the EU, as Scots voted handily to remain, and barely voted to stay in the UK in a 2014 referendum.
Regardless of what happens, this whole situation is a fascinating chapter in British political history, and a pivotal point both for that country, Europe, and potentially the world. I hope this helps you to get a very brief, very over-simplified, idea of what is going on with our cousins across the pond.