In a letter signed by British Prime Minister Theresa May and delivered to European Council President Donald Tusk on Wednesday, the United Kingdom officially triggered Article 50 – the exit clause of the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty – and notified the council of its intention to end a 44-year marriage with the regional bloc.
The historic démarche launched a two-year divorce process whose outcomes will reshape the future of both the European Union and the United Kingdom in fundamental and potentially dangerous ways.
As in any separation, Britain’s stunning decision to exit the grouping in last June’s referendum and its formal notification of leaving the community this week were not universally happy moments – especially for the EU.
The UK’s triggering of Article 50 came only four days after the leaders of the EU’s remaining 27 states and the heads of its key institutions gathered in Italy’s capital to mark the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, which led to the bloc’s formation.
Britain’s departure also takes place at a time when the EU is fragile because it is facing numerous daunting internal and external challenges.
Moreover, Britain is the world’s fifth-biggest – and the EU’s second-largest – economy and has been one of the largest contributors to the regional grouping. It is also one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Losing such a big and powerful member at a crucial time in its existence dents the EU’s influence and credibility.
Thus it is no surprise that the mood in Brussels and other European capitals on the day the UK officially gave notice of its exit was very somber.
The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, who has called Brexit “a tragedy”, said he was “deeply sad”, while Antonio Tajani, president of the European Parliament, acknowledged that “this is not a good day for Europe”.
Most European leaders say they are sad because they firmly believe that staying closer together is the best way to achieve security and prosperity not only for their own countries but also for Europe at large. In their Rome Declaration, they stressed on March 25: “Unity is both a necessity and our free choice. Taken individually, we would be sidelined by global dynamics. Standing together is our best chance to influence them, and to defend our common interests and values.”
Such a message was also probably aimed at Britain and, without doubt, agreed by those who backed the UK’s remaining in the world’s biggest regional market.
Speaking to members of Parliament just after the UK’s EU ambassador had handed her letter to Tusk in Brussels, Prime Minister May described Britain’s departure as “an historic moment” and a “unique opportunity” to “shape a brighter future” for the UK.
Whether the UK will be better off outside one of the world’s largest economic powers remains to be seen. Yet many have already pointed out that there are huge gaps between the rhetoric of the Brexit camp during the referendum campaign and the hard-headed details of negotiations with the EU and, consequently, the post-Brexit reality.
The Leave campaign promised that £350 million (US373 million) a week could be spent on the National Health Service if the UK left. Not only was that claim completely false but the UK is now facing demands to pay a £50 billion divorce bill.
Recent findings by a think-tank show that several regions that voted for Brexit are among the most vulnerable to its risks.
Most tellingly, while Brexit, as Tusk pointed out, has made the EU’s 27 remaining states “more determined and more united than before”, it could potentially weaken the unity of the UK.
Just hours before May signed the Article 50 letter on Tuesday evening, the Scottish Parliament backed a second independence referendum, which could be held before Britain leaves the EU, in spring 2019.
In the first referendum in 2014, the UK’s northernmost nation voted against independence by 55.3%. However, should a second independence vote be held, there could be a different outcome, as the oil-rich country, with a population of 5.3 million, is very pro-EU.
While the UK as a whole voted to leave the EU by 52% to 48%, Scotland voted to stay by 62% to 38%, with all 32 council areas backing Remain in last June’s referendum.
More important, and ironically, Scottish secessionists can now use most of the key arguments maintained by the Brexit camp and the May government to justify their demand for the second vote and to achieve their independence.
With “Take Back Control” as their slogan, Brexiteers stressed the need for the UK to regain control of its laws and sovereignty from Brussels. The Scottish National Party (SNP), which won the most Scottish seats in the 2010 and 2015 UK elections, now similarly demands to take control from Westminster.
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister and the SNP leader, argues that as May “has hailed Brexit as an exercise in autonomy, [preventing] Scotland from seeking the same would be indefensible”.
The argument that Scotland should not vote for independence because the rest of Britain is its biggest market is not convincing either, because the UK is leaving the EU, which is Britain’s largest market.
Thus there is a possibility that by the time Britain ends its nearly five-decade association with the EU, Scotland could also sever its more than 300-year union with the UK.
The prospect of Northern Ireland’s reunification with the Republic of Ireland was distant, if not unthinkable, before June 23 last year. Though it remains highly unlikely, such a prospect can no longer be ruled out.
As in Scotland, Brexit is unpopular in Northern Ireland, which voted to remain in the EU by 56% to 44%. This has prompted Sinn Fein to call for a poll on Irish unity. In a snap election early in March, the pro-Irish-reunification party recorded its strongest ever electoral performance, winning 27 seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly, only one fewer than the Democratic Unionist Party, the largest in Stormont.
Just two days before May triggered Article 50, a leaked letter by David Davis, the UK government’s Brexit secretary, admitted that Northern Ireland “can rejoin EU after Brexit if it votes for reunification”. Such an admission was a blow to May’s efforts to keep the union together, because it has intensified calls for a united Ireland from Sinn Fein and Northern Ireland’s centrist parties.
In fact, Brexit is very divisive not only in Scotland and Northern Ireland but almost everywhere in the UK. As May acknowledged, the day her government triggered Article 50 “is a day of celebration for some and disappointment for others”.
That is why in a very somber response to the UK’s notification of exit, Tusk said: “There is no need to pretend that this is a happy day, neither in Brussels or in London. After all, most Europeans, including almost half the British voters, wish that we would stay together, not drift apart.”
He also said there would be no winners from Brexit and the next two years would be a matter of “damage control”.
Indeed, though it is still early to judge its impacts on both the EU and the UK, Brexit could be costly for both sides – all the more so if Britain’s divorce from the bloc is not amicably handled. Therefore, for the interests of not only the EU and the UK, but also for Europe and even the wider world, it is imperative that Brussels and London remain cooperative during the Brexit talks and beyond.