The UK Government had been promising the electorate a referendum on EU membership for quite some time and though not normally legally binding, an Act of Parliament in 2015 ensured that the Government would fulfil the wishes of voters in the referendum, whatever the outcome. The result of the 23 June 2016 was close, but on the face of it quite clear.
OOn a turnout of 72.21%, the Remain vote was 48.11%, with the Leave vote winning at 51.89%. Those figures, however, masked quite noticeable regional variations – for example, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Greater London voted by a large majority to Remain (as did Gibraltar) whereas Leave was equally emphatic in large swathes of England such as the industrial heartlands of the North. This would prove to make the road to departure difficult and full of bumps and potholes. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, resigned – he had spearheaded the unsuccessful Remain campaign so felt he could no longer lead the Government through the Leave process. Leadership passed to Theresa May – something of a poisoned chalice as she too was a supporter of Remain, now tasked with leading a Government to do something which she did not actually believe in. Because of the 2015 Act, she had no choice, but would focus on leaving the EU on the best possible terms. The task was made somewhat easier for her in the sense that the official Opposition in the House of Commons was led by Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader. Corbyn was deeply unpopular both in the Labour Party in the Commons and in the country, having done extraordinarily little in the referendum campaign to oppose Cameron, leaving the field wide open to populists such as Nigel Farage and the charismatic Boris Johnson. Corbyn was never clear as to where he stood and it is worth noting that the great swathes of the Leave vote were in traditional Labour Party strongholds, such as the North East of England.
Corbyn was deeply unpopular both in the Labour Party in the Commons and in the country, having done extraordinarily little in the referendum campaign to oppose Cameron, leaving the field wide open to populists such as Nigel Farage and the charismatic Boris Johnson.
The UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, triggered the EU withdrawal process on 29 March, 2017 (Article 50), and as a consequence that action created a leaving date of 29 March, 2019 with the two years being used to finalise a suitable trade deal between the United Kingdom and the European Union.
The negotiations did not begin well, in part because at the time there was no real sense of urgency in the UK, but also because of a deep feeling of mistrust on both sides. The then President of the EU Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker (a former Prime Minister of Luxembourg) was greatly disliked in the UK, with accusations of financial improprieties hanging around him from his days in Luxembourg, and Theresa May herself headed a government with only a small majority in the House of Commons and some doubts in her own political party as to her commitment to the process. In January, 2017, Donald Trump had been sworn in as the 45th President of the USA, and there were some in the UK who thought that a UK-US deal was more important than a UK-EU deal. That was a short-lived diversion, as the eccentric and irresponsible actions of Trump became more evident, focus returned to the UK-EU negotiations. It soon became evident that more time was needed and the EU agreed a “flexible extension” to 12 April, 2019 and after further talks another flexible extension to 31 October, 2019.
Theresa May announced in April, 2017, that a General Election would be held that June with her aim being to strengthen her position both in Parliament and at the EU negotiating table. Needless to say, the result of the election on 8 June, 2017, was a disaster for Theresa May, losing her overall majority in the Commons and only able to continue with the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.
Needless to say, the result of the election on 8 June, 2017, was a disaster for Theresa May, losing her overall majority in the Commons and only able to continue with the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.
The UK-EU talks rumbled on through 2017, 2018 and 2019 and for the weary citizens of the United Kingdom each day was marked with newspaper headlines predicting a heady mixture of doom or sunlit uplands, depending on whether you were a Remainer or a Leaver. The two sides began gathering in marches and demonstrations, economic experts spoke of either bankruptcy or huge gains and in general terms the polarisation over the Leave-Remain divide intensified. A characteristic of the British throughout the whole relationship with the EU was that there was never any middle ground – you were either for or against. Each time Theresa May came back from Brussels, she was savaged in the House of Commons – she survived Votes of No Confidence but after her draft Withdrawal Agreement was rejected three times by Parliament, she finally threw in the towel and resigned as Prime Minister on 24 July, 2019. She was succeeded by her former Foreign Secretary, the charismatic Boris Johnson who had spearheaded the Leave campaign up to the referendum in 2016. As Prime Minister, Johnson made it clear that he would take the UK out of the EU no matter what, and that “no deal was better than a bad deal”. Yet another General Election was held on 12 December, 2019, with Jonson securing a very large majority in the House and Corbyn’s Labour Party being virtually wiped out. In many of the former Labour strongholds where Labour had been the party of choice for voters for decades, Johnson won support – these strongholds were exactly those which had overwhelmingly voted Leave in the 2016 referendum. The message was clear – a further flexible extension was agreed to 23.00GMT 31 January, 2020, with the transition period ending at midnight GMT on 31 December, 2020.
And that, as they say, was that – trade talks went to the wire. The final agreement was probably not much different to that which Theresa May had tried to get through Parliament three times, but the UK was going to leave and Jonson would have kept his election promise. Besides, other things had taken over all our lives – Covid-19 changed everything and continues to dominate every aspect of every day. Waking up on the morning of 1 January, 2021, it would be true to say that the UK finally leaving the EU was not the first thing on anyone’s mind.
* The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only
Author of the article:
A credit management consultant involved with credit for over 40 years, he has worked in various industries, including export. Glen has been a member of the CICM for more than 30 years and, in addition to being a past Chairman, also chairs its Technical Advisory Committee, serves on its Education Committee.