The Brexit Breakup Gets Messier

The United Kingdom and the EU Will Be Tied to Each Other for Years to Come

EU supporters at a demonstration in London, March 2019 Kevin Coombs / REUTERS

Divorce is painful, especially when a marriage has lasted for more than 40 years and lives and finances are deeply intertwined. Emotions run high, assets are contested, and countless details need to be addressed. The June 2016 decision by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union has been no different: divorce negotiations have set off a heated debate about the United Kingdom’s future relationship with the European Union and strained arrangements with Northern Ireland and Scotland.

The British government has been an ambivalent member of the EU family from the beginning. In 1957, the United Kingdom opted out of early membership in the European Coal and Steel Community, reluctant to cede sovereignty to a supranational institution and concerned about damaging ties to the Commonwealth. In 1973, the British government joined the European Economic Community. But over the years, it negotiated a rebate that reduced its financial contributions and opted out of several flagship policies, including the euro and the Schengen travel area.

When former Prime Minister David Cameron held a referendum on EU membership in June 2016, he was seeking to end a years-long argument within his Conservative Party over the United Kingdom’s place in Europe. Opinion polls showed the public did not identify Europe as their most important issue before he announced the referendum in early 2016. Following a contentious campaign, British voters opted by a 51.9 to 48.1 percent margin to leave the EU. Attitudes varied across the country, with solid majorities in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and London preferring to remain.

On March 29, 2017, the British government notified the EU of its intent to withdraw by invoking Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty. In June 2017, the two sides began messy negotiations about the terms of the separation, which was scheduled to take effect on March 29, 2019. London conceded to Brussels’ preferred sequencing for the talks: finalizing the divorce before addressing the future. There was logic to this approach, as the European Union wanted the United Kingdom to make a clean break before determining new arrangements.

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