Brexit: Britain remains divided a year after Article 50



With just one year until Britain leaves the European Union, the country appears as divided as ever over Brexit.

In the 2016 referendum, nearly 52 percent of the population voted to leave the EU, while marginally over 48 percent voted to remain, a wafer-thin majority in what was the biggest democratic project in the UK for a generation.

On March 29 last year, UK Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, beginning the legal process of separation and two years of negotiations.

It hasn’t been easy.

Earlier this month, May and the EU agreed to a transition period to avoid a calamitous “cliff edge” next March – but only after London accepted difficult terms.

The transition period means Britain will remain effectively a non-voting EU member for 21 months, until the end of 2020.

The complexities of it all hadn’t been anticipated, either by the political establishment or possibly by the great majority of the 33.5 million voters who went to the polls.

The referendum campaign Brexit had been an emotional affair, not an economic battle.

It was all about winning back the sovereignty of the British Parliament, and taking control of the country’s borders from Brussels. And it was Article 50, which was to formally trigger that change.

As the labyrinthine Brexit talks got underway, however, UK Prime Minister Theresa May called for a general election – resulting in a catastrophic loss of her parliamentary majority.

She spent more than a billion dollars buying support from a political party in Northern Ireland with roots in fundamentalist religion.

And ironically, it is the land border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic that remains one of the biggest Brexit conundrums.

At the European Union Commission, EU Chief Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier insists there’ll be no change to a crossing that embodies trade and peace.

That, of course, would mean British membership of the EU Customs Union and no UK control over borders or EU immigration – conditions that are completely unacceptable to hard-line Brexit supporters in the UK.

On the bright side, May hailed the post-Brexit return of a blue British passport as an expression of the UK’s independence and sovereignty, only to find the new blue travel document will be made by a Franco-Dutch firm in France.

On the streets of the UK, there are concerns that negotiations are going badly and others who question whether Brexit is ultimately deliverable.

Indeed, so challenging has Brexit proved to be, negotiators need that two-year transition period. And Theresa May welcomed it.

There’s dismay among protesting Brexit hardliners. Fearing for the impact of the deal on Britain’s fishing industry, they took to the Thames outside the British Houses of Parliament and tossed dead Haddock into the water. It was an emotional display of defiance, which has largely been the mark of the Brexit debate in Britain.

The final frontier for the UK’s European departure could go beyond mere land borders as Britain is told it may be shut out of the European Union’s space program, a source of highly lucrative contracts.

There are also accusations that the Vote Leave campaign cheated.

A “whistle-blower,” who worked for the controversial Big Data company Cambridge Analytica, and a former member of Vote Leave both accused the campaign of illegal funding.

Answering questions from members of the UK Parliament, Christopher Wylie, formerly of Cambridge Analytica, said the cheating might have swayed the result.

Vote Leave officials have denied breaking election rules and said they were facing an attempt to undermine Brexit by smearing their reputations.

But none of this appears to have altered the fundamentals of Brexit.

A year on from Article 50 and around a year to go before the UK actually leaves the European Union, opinions are as divided as ever.

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing is that – close as it was – there’s little in the opinion polls to suggest the people in Britain would vote any differently if they had to do the whole Brexit deal all over again.

For some, Brexit’s a slow motion car crash. For others, a chance to display a great national pride in isolation.

For those of us watching from the sidelines, it is a truly extraordinary event.