What had seemed almost unachievable was achieved on Nov. 25 at a special EU summit. This is a fateful moment. The first hurdle has been passed. The EU has reached a portentous turning point that will have a dire impact on its future. The damage to the bloc’s global standing will be considerable and irreparable. This separation may expedite a further partition of “multi-speed Europe" along north-south lines, with Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, and the Scandinavian and Baltic states breaking away and thus putting an end to the very idea of European unity.
After 18 months of tough negotiations, the leaders of the EU endorsed the 585-page Brexit Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration on the future of EU-UK relations, which details the terms and conditions under which Britain will leave the bloc on March 19, 2019. The proposed deal details financial matters, citizens' rights, the impact on Northern Ireland, and outlines how the UK can access the EU market once the two- to four-year transition period is over. All of Great Britain will be part of a customs union with the EU. Northern Ireland will remain within certain elements of the EU's common market.
The deal must still be approved by the House of Commons in early December. All the opposition parties and some 70 Conservative MPs vigorously oppose it. Some of those who support the deal in general are not happy about the backstop aimed at preventing the reestablishment of a hard border with Ireland.
Some 60 Tory Euroskeptics and 10 Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MPs who prop up the minority government insist that the agreement will preserve an overly intimate relationship between the UK and the bloc. The DUP lawmakers are threatening to withdraw their support for the Tories if the deal passes parliament. The backstop is not something they can reconcile themselves to. Some see it as the path to separation. According to former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, “It is a choice between the break-up of this country, or the subjugation of this country, between separation or submission. It is between treating Northern Ireland as an economic colony of the EU, or treating the whole of the UK as such a colony. It is a choice between protecting the Union or saving Brexit.” Their intransigence might destroy the country they profess to protect.
The dissatisfaction is strong enough to trigger rumors about a possible “rebellion” inside the ruling coalition’s ranks. The calls for a second referendum on Brexit have been getting louder. But will it change anything and is there time before the end of March? A general election, effectively another form of a referendum on the deal, is also a realistic option. If the government won a majority, it would be in much better shape to tackle the never-ending problems caused by this farewell to the EU. But nothing can be changed; EU leaders have warned that they are not prepared to renegotiate the deal.
The aftermath impacts not only Europe’s future but the kingdom’s fate as well, because the British public is divided over the issue and those differences are extremely hard to reconcile. The nation could crumble from within. The British public no longer identify themselves as either Labor or Conservative, but rather as Brexiteers and their opponents, with England strongly supporting the EU withdrawal while Northern Ireland and Scotland want to remain.
In October, a study by the Centre on Constitutional Change showed that a clear majority of Brexit supporters believe it’s more important to leave the EU than to retain pro-EU Scotland and Northern Ireland. They see ditching them both as an acceptable price to pay for independence from Brussels. Fifty-two percent of all voters in Northern Ireland and 52% of voters in Scotland would opt for independence from the United Kingdom if Brexit moves forward, according to a recent survey by Deltapoll.
With the backstop making it possible to treat Northern Ireland as a special case, Scotland will inevitably ask the pointed question, “What about us?” It is not part of the Brexit deal, but the Scots voted overwhelmingly in favor of remaining in the EU. London’s disregard for this fact will most certainly thrust the issue of Scotland’s independence to center stage and add another referendum on independence to the agenda. Scottish PM Nicola Sturgeon is mulling this option. Besides, the Scottish parliament could declare independence without holding a referendum. The minimum Edinburgh would agree to is a special status that would allow it to stay in the EU. If Scotland leaves, the issue of Britain’s strategic nuclear deterrent, which is currently based in Scotland, will rise to the fore. No immediately viable alternative location in England exists. Or will that arsenal be shared, thus turning Scotland into a nuclear power?
If formal unity is preserved, Northern Ireland and Scotland would each receive special status and at least three of the nations that make up that kingdom would then be living in accordance with their own laws. The country will have factually disintegrated. The calls for Welsh independence will also grow louder. Great Britain’s seat at the head table will no longer be assured, even though it will most likely retain its UN Security Council seat. The UK’s withdrawal from the EU could mark the start of its disintegration. Nor is NATO as united as it once was.
Theresa May rejects the idea of holding another referendum or nationwide election that in theory could be won by EU supporters — which would be the only chance to keep the kingdom together. So, we’re in for major changes on the European continent. It’s extremely hard to make any precise predictions about what’s in store, but one thing is certain — the unity of the West has been dealt a severe blow.