On 23 June 2016, the United Kingdom voted by 51,9 per cent to 48,1 per cent to leave the European Union, which made Brexit a reality. Considering it was the first time a country decided to leave the Union, the referendum result sparked many different responses across the EU.
Most prominently, UK’s Prime Minister at the time, David Cameron, resigned shortly after the vote. As a proponent of remaining in the EU, Cameron stepped down arguing that “fresh leadership” was needed to successfully negotiate the terms of the UK leaving the Union. The presidents of the EU institutions at the time – Martin Schulz (Parliament), Donald Tusk (Council) and Jean-Claude Juncker (Commission) – expressed in a joint statement that they regretted the British people to leave the EU but to respect the decision. Eurosceptic parties all over Europe seized the moment to advocate their point of view on the Brexit vote. Among others, Geert Wilders (PVV, Netherlands) stated that the end of the EU was now just a matter of time and Marine le Pen (Le Rassemblement National, France) commented that Brexit was a victory for freedom.
With Theresa May – a fellow conservative – as the successor of Cameron as PM, the UK officially confirmed its departure from the EU by invoking a part of the Lisbon Treaty known as Article 50 on 29 March 2017. This signified the start of a long and complicated Brexit process between the UK and the EU. Although May personally campaigned as a ‘Remainer’, she nevertheless argued that “Brexit means Brexit and we’re going to make a success of it”.
Originally, Brexit was planned to take place on 29 March 2019 – exactly two years after invoking Article 50 – but because no other member state ever left the EU before, the list of issues that had to be agreed upon seemed to have no end. Consequently, there was an awful lot on the Brexit-agenda that had to be discussed. The first major task was to come to an agreement on the conditions and terms of the UK leaving the EU. This agreement is referred to as the withdrawal agreement or the ‘divorce’ deal.
A key issue in the negotiations of the withdrawal agreement was to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (member state of the EU), which know a history of armed sectarian conflict that cost 3.600 lives in the period from 1968 to 1998. With Brexit, it was feared that a hard EU border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would lead to political instability.
May’s solution to the Irish border, the so-called backstop plan, would place the UK on a temporary base into a customs union with the EU, maintaining very close trading relations by remaining inside the European single market and customs union, often referred to as a soft-Brexit. Critics were extremely concerned that May’s backstop plan would keep the UK too closely connected to the EU. Nigel Farage, as one of the most prominent Brexit proponents stated that May’s deal “is the worst deal in history” and that “what she signed up to is us (the UK) indefinitely being rule takers from the European Union”.
May came to an agreement with the EU but she met tremendous opposition in UK’s Parliament. May’s efforts of a withdrawal agreement were rejected three times by Parliament in early 2019 and therefore failed to officially depart from the EU on 29 March 2019. After she encountered three defeats in Parliament, May lost all credibility as PM who could make Brexit happen and resigned shortly after.