At exactly 11:00 pm on January 31, after two postponements, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK) finally and formally left the European Union (EU). Crowds gathered in Parliament Square, London, to celebrate their freedom, while in Edinburgh Scottish nationalists met to mourn and resolve to push for another independence referendum, after which they would apply to rejoin the EU as a separate nation.
Thus ended a relationship that began in 1973 when, under a Conservative Government, the UK joined what was then the European Economic Community. The EEC became the EU in 1992 and the treaties now contain a provision directing movement towards the creation of a United States of Europe. Fears of a loss of national sovereignty for the UK led to pressure for a referendum on continued membership. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron agreed to hold one in June 2016, with the expectation of success for what had become the Remain side in the debate, known as Brexit (short for “British Exit”). Instead, somewhat to the surprise of those on both sides, the Leave movement prevailed by a vote of 52 percent to 48 percent. The vast majority of those votes were from England and Wales. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain. David Cameron resigned and was succeeded by Teresa May.
On March 29, 2017, the UK government, with the approval of parliament, began the process of invoking Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union. This article provides that a member state may leave the Union within two years by notifying the EU of its intentions to do so. Teresa May, riding high in the polls, called a snap election in June 2017 to strengthen her majority in parliament. Instead, the Conservatives lost seats and became dependent on the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. May negotiated to leave the EU customs union and single market, resulting in a November 2018 withdrawal agreement, but this was thrice defeated by the UK Parliament and Teresa May resigned.
Unlike May, her flamboyant successor, Boris Johnston, had been a leader of the Leave movement. Proposals were made by opposition members for a second referendum, but Johnston was determined to press ahead, as well as to honour the results of the original referendum. He called for an election on December 12, 2019. This time the result was to strengthen the Prime Minister’s hand, with the largest Conservative majority since 1987. Johnson vowed to leave the EU by the end of January and this is what happened.
A sticking point in negotiations had been the so-called “Irish backstop,” which was an attempt to prevent border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, a EU member. Johnson was able to renegotiate a revised withdrawal agreement, with new arrangements for Northern Ireland.
EU rules will remain in place until the end of the year, by which time a new trade agreement must be in place. Canada’s Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the EU is being touted as a model, but given that this arrangement was over seven years in the making, the pressure is definitely on! The UK is also seeking a trade agreement with the U.S. Meanwhile Canada’s agreement with the EU no longer applies to the UK and a new trade arrangement will have to be negotiated.
Certain businesses were impacted negatively by EU rules, others positively. The main push for Brexit was not economic as much as a question of sovereignty. Now that this is ensured for the UK, Scotland is talking again about becoming a separate sovereign nation for the first time since 1707. But true sovereignty does not belong to any political entity and those of us concerned about the future of the UK must place our hopes prayerfully in our sovereign Lord. To quote from Lord Mackay of Clashfern, a fellow Scot who served as Lord Chancellor of the UK from 1987-1997:
“There is no doubt that the country is seriously divided in the nations that make up our United Kingdom and also between them. Sittings in both Houses of Parliament begin with prayers. Surely all who love our United Kingdom should pray earnestly that our gracious God would lead us forward. In his first letter to Timothy Paul writes ‘I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority.’ For an example of such a prayer, when his nation was in great trouble, we find Daniel, in chapter 9, confessing his own sin and the sins of Israel’s kings, princes and fathers. However, he was also looking to the Lord God, to whom belongs mercy and forgiveness, for deliverance. In my view this is an appropriate example for us at this time.”