Brexit – the pursuit of common ground

Ruth Green, IBA Multimedia Journalist

Three years of uncertainty since the referendum have triggered remarkable levels of both engagement and frustration. Maintaining essential values underpinning democracy and the rule of law in the face of toxic global forces remains a potentially overwhelming challenge.

For those living through this unprecedented moment in Europe’s history, certain dates will remain etched in the memory.

On 23 June 2016, the UK voted, by the tightest of margins – 51.7 per cent to 48.3 per cent – in favour of leaving the European Union. Over 1,000 days later, another key date, 29 March 2019 – when Britain was due to leave after two years of negotiations triggered under Article 50 – has come and gone.

A plethora of legal questions remain.

The default position as the initial exit date passed at the end of March was that the UK would be obliged to leave the EU with no deal on 12 April.

Deals put forward by Prime Minister Theresa May spelling out her vision for the UK’s future relationship with the EU have held little allure so far for MPs. Her proposals were vetoed three times, by 230, 149 and then 58 votes.

MPs participated in two rounds of voting on alternative options. These also failed to gain traction. None of the options – including a permanent customs union with the EU or a bid to put the deal to a public vote – received enough support to break the deadlock.

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None promised to resolve the most contentious issues, from freedom of movement and trade to the future implications for the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – the UK’s only land border with another EU Member State.

The Irish backstop, the safety net designed to guarantee the border between the two countries remains open regardless of the terms of the final deal, has been a major sticking point.

The Brexit negotiations and the border question have risked reopening the visceral wounds of ‘The Troubles’. Northern Ireland’s power-sharing agreement between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party remains in tatters. More than 800 days have passed since Stormont, the country’s devolved government, ceased to function. Senior politicians in Westminster, including Justice Secretary David Gauke, have said a no-deal Brexit could put Northern Ireland’s place in the UK ‘in some doubt’. A recent resurgence in violence in Londonderry, Northern Ireland’s second-largest city, is a grave reminder that a return to direct rule could risk reigniting underlying sectarian tensions.

Any sort of conflict is, of course, contrary to the original premise of the European project. The 1957 Treaty of Rome, which created the European Economic Community (EEC), sought to unite a continent still reeling from the devastation of the Second World War. When the UK joined in 1973, it embraced the EEC’s focus on the freedom of movement of goods, services, capital and people.

These aspects were inherited by the grouping that we now know today as the EU.

As the bloc expanded, ultimately to 28 Member States, a sense of ‘enlargement fatigue’ put pressure on the continent’s ability to remain as a singular cohesive entity.

The onset of the global financial crisis in 2007 and latterly the 2015 refugee crisis exacerbated these tensions – possibly to breaking point. Such developments certainly drew the ire of Member States that felt they were doing more than their fair share.

Over the ensuing decade, the dissenting voices have become both febrile and toxic. The rise of populism globally is an important factor in explaining the public mood in the run up to the referendum in 2016. Interestingly, since then, the Brexit negotiations have served to highlight benefits of EU membership that had not previously been apparent to many.

Numerous pieces of EU employment legislation, such as maternity and paternity rights, have been absorbed into domestic legislation. Human rights organisations, including the IBA’s Human Rights Institute and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, have cited concerns over the loss of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights as the only legally binding document that includes standalone provisions to safeguard human dignity and the rights of the child, and protect against discrimination. Currently there is no direct equivalent to these rights in any of the UK’s three legal jurisdictions.

It’s something of an understatement to suggest long-running uncertainty since the referendum has unsettled the business community. Global financial institutions such as Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Bank of Montreal and Barclays have explored the option of Dublin as a post-Brexit European hub. Major companies such as Airbus, Ford and Siemens, which together employ about 42,000 people in the UK, have been openly critical of the lack of economic clarity. On 21 March, the heads of the UK’s top businesses and trade union leaders took the unprecedented step of jointly penning an open letter to the Prime Minister stating that the country is facing a ‘national emergency’. Businesses and manufacturers continue to stockpile products so as to mitigate the risks presented by the potential trade delays.

On 23 March, a crowd of more than a million people snaked through the streets of London demanding a public vote on Brexit. An online petition has been signed by over 6 million people calling on the government to revoke Article 50. Both serve to highlight the level of public engagement with Brexit negotiations and, simultaneously, frustration with them.

The goalposts keep shifting. On one thing, though, above all else, UK Prime Minister Theresa May has remained entirely consistent: that she feels duty-bound to deliver Brexit.

In 1955, shortly before resigning from office, Sir Winston Churchill outlined the obligations of the UK’s legislative body, saying that ‘under any healthy manifestation of democracy’, MPs in Parliament should fulfil their duties first to their nation, second to their constituents and lastly to their own party.

As the tectonic plates have continually shifted, the current British Prime Minister has been forced to heed Churchill’s words and pursue that seemingly elusive common ground in the national interest.

Ruth Green is Multimedia Journalist at the IBA and can be contacted at ruth.green@int-bar.org

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