2016 – Brexit year – will be etched into the UK’s political landscape for decades. Holding a referendum on EU membership started out as a relatively lightweight political gesture by the party in government, but the result struck the country like a political earthquake. With the exception of war, it is hard to imagine an event which could wring greater changes in one of the world’s largest economies.
Economically, the Brexit decision makes no sense. Those in the know – the UK’s politicians – recognise the dire implications of Britain excommunicating itself from an economic club (market) of 27 countries with a combined population of over 500 million people. However, those same politicians must shoulder some of the blame for the populace taking this apparently rash course of action since their pre-vote campaign did little to enlighten the average voter.
Politically, the Brexit process – which is likely to take years rather than months – will hammer at the cracks already visible between the four component countries which make up the UK: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The majority party in Scotland, the Scottish National Party (SNP), had already led one attempt to break Scotland’s ties with its closest neighbour, England. That should have been an end to the matter, but the fact that a majority of Scottish citizens voted to stay in the EU, gifted the SNP an opportunity to reopen that debate. The party’s representatives suggest that Scotland will not only break from the UK, but remain or re-enter the EU as an independent country.
Northern Ireland’s society is already divided along religious and political lines due to the long-standing desire of its republican community to align itself with the Irish Republic. As a consequence, decades of violence and civil unrest have not yet faded from living memory here, the UK’s smallest province. Now Brexit has the potential to turn the already troublesome Northern Ireland border into the only interface between the UK and an EU country. Whether any perceived advantages of Brexit will outweigh all of the above, is yet to be determined.