Dispute Resolution Solicitor, Stewart Croft, takes a look at where we are now a year on from Brexit and reflects on whether we are destined for a difficult journey
It is now over a year since the referendum whereby the UK voted to leave the European Union following a 51.9% majority in favour of leave. The referendum was a simple binary yes/no vote to decide the future membership of the United Kingdom within the EU. The United Kingdom has been a member state since 1973; hence, it is not a decision that would/ should have been taken lightly.
The result certainly was a suprise for many but the outcome is part and parcel of living in a democracy. Parliament must now try and negotiate an exit deal with the best interests of the UK at the forefront of their considerations.
So, the majority voted yes and the people had spoken. The truth is the referendum was the first step of a threefold process. The second part of the process was completed by Theresa May on 29th May 2017 when she triggered Article 50 (of the Treaty of Lisbon). This gives the UK 2 years to agree a deal and leave the EU, meaning the UK should have left by April 2019. The third and most pivotal part of the process is that Parliament must now negotiate the UK’s withdrawal (the divorce terms) and the new deal moving forward. The divorce terms will obviously include negotiating the UK’s outstanding liabilities to the EU at the date of withdrawal.
The new deal will include negotiating on a myriad of issues including the crucial decision as to whether the UK will remain a part of the single market, migration rights, both into the UK and from UK residents to the EU, and negotiating trade deals. It is this part of the process that will take a significant amount of time (possibly up to 10 years according to Sir Ivan Rogers, the British Ambassador to the EU), therefore it is unlikely that all the issues, particularly trade deals, will be finalised before the April 2019 deadline.
If the UK did not agree a withdrawal agreement, European Treaties and legislature would cease to apply from April 2019. The timeframe for withdrawal can be extended with the unanimous agreement of the other 27 member states.
There has been much publicity regarding a hard or soft Brexit. In reality, it may be neither. Parliament have a duty to ensure that any negotiated deal is not unreasonably damaging to the UK economy. The fact that we democratically voted to leave does not negate that duty. If the UK is on the edge of a precipice, Parliament cannot simply take a step off the edge. Brexit is not as cut and dry as people may think. Even if a deal is agreed in principle, it then must be approved by a qualified majority of EU member states. It could also be vetoed by the European Parliament.
Finally, and back to the point about democracy. Were the general public of the UK adequately informed about the relationship between the EU and the UK and what the potential consequences were for both staying and leaving? The UK has a highly partisan press; therefore, an impartial viewpoint was nigh on impossible.
For some food for thought, this quote from Alexander Meiklejohn, Philosopher and free speech advocate, seems particularly profound:
"For democracy to be a success “an informed electorate is necessary. To be appropriately knowledgeable, there must be no constraints on the free flow of information and ideas. Democracy will not be true to its essential ideal if those in power are able to manipulate the electorate by withholding information and stifling criticism”.
It remains to be seen what the outcome of the negotiations will be. The European Commission are approaching the Brexit negotiations with a maximum level of transparency. Will this approach be adopted by UK Parliament who at present seem to want the negotiations to take place behind closed doors and which could cause animosity for the UK public who started this process?