Brexit: what is taking so long?

Sep 01, 2020

It has been over four years since the Brexit vote and the UK and EU seem no closer to an agreement. Crona Clohisey explains the history of the relationship between the two sides and how that affects them both today.

It has been four years since the UK voted to leave the EU, a vote which is probably the most significant event to occur in the history of the EU. However, little has happened since then in the way of an agreement. The transition period ends on 31 December this year and, with an extension ruled out, the UK and the EU will need to reach an agreement on its future relationship by then; otherwise, there will be significant disruption for many businesses. 

Looking back at the UK’s history with the EU, we can get a better understanding of how Brexit came about. The 2016 Brexit referendum was actually the second time that the UK people were asked how they felt about their membership in the Bloc. When a vote took place in the UK in 1975, 67% supported continued membership of the then-European Communities (EC). The UK had only joined the EC two-and-a-half years earlier. In the years that followed, many observers remarked that the UK endured a troubled and even rebellious existence within the EU.

Ironically, the UK had trouble joining the bloc initially. In 1961, the UK first applied for membership of the then-EEC and that application was blocked by French President Charles de Gaulle. It was reported that he was concerned that the UK membership would weaken the French voice in Europe. The French President was also afraid that the close relations between the UK and the United States would lead to the United States increasing its influence in Europe. Then, in 1967, a second application was rejected by Charles de Gaulle; the reason being that he felt the UK economy would not be suited to membership of the EEC, particularly given the UK’s practice of obtaining cheap foods from all parts of the world. The UK did eventually bring a successful application and joined in January 1973 – the same year Ireland also became a member state.

Since then, the UK’s relationship with the EU has often been a divisive and a somewhat emotive issue in British politics. Margaret Thatcher, who was elected Prime Minister in 1979, had been a supporter of the EC. She even campaigned for the UK to remain in the EC in the 1975 vote. However, during the early 1980s, her view changed. She spent five years battling to lower the UK’s contribution to the EC’s budget, which she eventually won after famously demanding “we want our money back”. She was fearful of the project to create the European Monetary Union which would eventually see the creation of the Euro. She was also critical of the EU’s Single Market. Incidentally, the UK did not join the Euro, nor did it sign up to the Schengen Area, a commitment between 26 EU countries to abolish passport control and other border measures. 

So, it’s of no great surprise what was a complicated relationship has turned into an even more complicated divorce. The stark reality is that if the UK and the EU fail to reach agreement on a trade deal, the UK will have to trade with the EU on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms which, in reality, has fewer benefits and high tariffs. The UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has said that this would still be a “very good option” for the UK but many businesses across Ireland and the UK struggle to see how. Reduced trading costs and bureaucracy are just some of the benefits of free trade agreements, both of which will be a major factor without an agreement. Avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland was not a dominant issue in the UK’s Brexit campaign but it has now become a huge stumbling block to a Brexit deal. With talks set to resume this month and a deal hoped by mid-October, it would seem, given the history, to be a mammoth task.