Effective on January 31st, 2020, the United Kingdom formally withdrew from the European Union in what has been come to be called “Brexit”. So what does this withdrawal mean exactly, and why does it matter?
The European Union
The European Union (EU) is an agreement between 27 European countries to share a common set of laws and policies. Residents of countries within the union are allowed to freely move about and trade with the other member countries, much like they do within their own. All residents of the EU and their families can choose to live and work within another member country without needing a visa or work permit. Additionally, 19 of the 27 countries within the EU share a common currency, the Euro. With a strong common currency and an efficient trading system, the EU operates one of the strongest economies in the world.
Since joining in 1973, the UK has seen several movements to withdraw from the European Union. A study done by Eurobarometer in 2009 of European Union citizens showed fewer citizens of the UK supported membership in the EU than almost any other country. That being said, public opinion on the topic of Brexit was tied almost evenly in 2016 when the referendum to leave the union was called into parliament. The referendum passed with a 51.9% vote share in favor of leaving, just barely passing with a majority vote. Supporters of Brexit maintain that leaving the EU allows the UK to obtain full sovereignty—the ability to dictate its own laws without interference from the EU. Critics of Brexit will point to the EU’s strong economy and the benefits of free movement. Conservative politics has played a significant role in the decision to leave. The Tories, the UK’s Conservative party, initiated the referendum in 2016, drawing the whole of British politics into the debate to leave or remain. A crucial part of the Tories’ political platform when backing Brexit was limiting immigration to the UK, a fact that liberal political parties will readily point out. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Conservative party member Boris Johnson based much of his 2019 election campaign on “Getting Brexit Done”, a slogan that proved to be effective as it drove the support of pro-Brexit voters.
What Changes in the UK?
As of the 1st of January 2021, free movement to the European Union ended for UK citizens. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the borders of the EU shut to travel from any outside country, including the UK. The ban separated families who live abroad in the UK and EU, catching some people by surprise. EU citizens living in the UK will now need to become a United Kingdom citizen or leave, with a new point-based immigration system in place, similar to the one in the United States. Some experts expect a decline in skilled labor as non-British members of the workforce return to the Union. Trade to the EU will now require additional documentation, as the UK is now subject to the same trade laws as non-member countries of the EU. Previously, trade had been streamlined to EU member countries, with over half of all trade coming to and from the EU. In the months following Brexit, import and export to the EU fell by 20% as companies faced new trade laws and the impact of the COVID-19 crisis. The economy of the UK is expected to change as a result of the separation, though the full impact of Brexit will not be clear until many years down the road. Pro-Brexit economists argue that the UK’s ability to create its own trade partners will eventually increase the GDP, while detractors will say that Brexit will limit trade in the years to come.