Britain’s membership of the European Union has always been problematic right from January 1, 1973. When the Union was still at the level of European Economic Community, accession of Britain to the 1957 EEC Rome Treaty was made difficult, particularly by France. Again, when Britain wants to withdraw its membership of the Union, life is again made difficult, with France also giving the tough conditions. True, a time to belong and a time to dissociate has a biblical foundation. But why is withdrawal of membership from the EU or Brexit now a problem?
In 2016, agreement was reached that Britain’s exit from the European Union would be as from March 29, 2019 on the basis of Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, done on December 1, 2009, and which requires certain steps to be taken when a Member State is voluntarily exiting the Union. The article provides for a two-year period of negotiation between the EU and the withdrawing Member State. The rules for the negotiations are also provided for in Article 218 on the Functioning of the European Union.
Thus all negotiations pertaining to withdrawal must be in accordance with Article 218 but Article 218(8) says that the EU Council must agree with the final deal on the basis of a qualified majority, meaning 72% of the 27 Member States (representing at least 65% of their population must favour the agreement. But, in the event a deal or an agreement covers EU finances, common foreign policy and security policy, then a unanimous vote by the Council will be required. Brexit falls under this requirement of unanimous vote, which explains in part why it has been quite difficult to secure a deal with the European Union. Although more difficult has also been the position of the British Parliament on what Prime Minister Theresa May has succeeded in securing as a deal, the British Parliament has not been comfortable with the deal.
Mrs. Theresa’s deal is in two parts: the withdrawal or divorce agreement and the political declaration. In the withdrawal agreement, Britain is required to provide the details of settlement of UK’s £39 billion to the EU, the guarantees for both the rights of the EU and the UK citizens, details of the 21-month transition period, and the arrangements for the backstop aimed at preventing the return of customs infrastructure at the Irish border in the absence of a deal with the EU. The backstop arrangement is to ensure that there is no hard border between the Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in the post-Brexit era.
The problem with the deal is that both the Labour Party and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) are not prepared to accept it for various reasons. The Labour Party considers that the MPs have not been allowed to have a say on the Political Declaration Section of the deal and it is the section that defines UK’s relationship with the EU. In the words of Sir Keir Starmer, the Shadow Brexit Secretary, ‘it makes a bad situation worse, it is the blindest of blind Brexits.’ The DUP said it would vote against the deal. As explained by the Deputy Leader of the DUP, Nigel Dodds, he does not expect ‘any last minute rabbits out of the hat that would change the party’s position’ and that the DUP is more concerned about plans for a ‘trade border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK and what that would mean in terms of who makes our laws – not Stormont or Westminster.’
The strong belief here is that Theresa May’s negotiated deal cannot be passed by the British Parliament without the supportive vote of the Labour Party and the DUP, in which case Brexit can be extended until May 22, 2019 if the deal was passed on Friday, March 29. But in the event the deal was not passed, the Brexit would be scheduled for April 12, 2019 and in which case there will be Brexit without a deal. It is Brexit without a deal that is the general source of concern. If there is no deal, it cannot but be difficult to foresee the dynamics of Britain’s relationship with the EU in the post-Brexit era. Without doubt, there will be consequences. And true enough, the British Parliament voted on Friday, March 29, 2019 and rejected the deal the third time with 344 votes against 286. This simply means that, as approved by the EU on March 21, Brexit will either be on April 12 in light of the parliamentary rejection of the deal or delayed for a longer time to come.
In this regard, how is Nigeria likely to be affected? Is the purpose of European integration threatened with Brexit? The modalities of the ECOWAS integration are largely patterned after those of the EEC, EC, and the EU. Nigeria is a major pilot of the ECOWAS integration scheme. How will Nigeria in ECOWAS be affected within the context of the ECOWAS integration agenda? More interestingly, how do the people of other Member States of the European Union see the eventual Brexit with or without a deal? How should the people of Nigeria react to the eventual Brexit?
Regional integration is generally believed to be an important catalytic dynamic of fast economic development in international economic relations. The belief is a resultant from another belief that unity and togetherness is necessarily a source of strength that drives away enmity among Member States or any quest for possible wars. In fact, one major lesson from the conclusion of World War II was the need to reconstruct and reunite Europe, by particularly ensuring that the Axis Powers, Germany and Italy in Western Europe, and Japan in Asia, are prevented from becoming militarily strong to the detriment of the victorious allies (Britain, France, United States, USSR, etc).
In Asia, Japan, in particular, was prevented from having any military force in an attempt to weaken it. In this regard, the Allies were instrumental to the making of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution which not only prohibits the use of force to settle any international disputes but also from maintaining any army, navy and air force.
At the level of Western Europe, efforts were made to unite the allies and to also court closer relationship with Italy. This was what prompted the understanding between the Foreign Ministers of Germany, Robert Schumann and France, Jean Monnet to lay the foundation for the establishment of the first two European Communities, Iron and Steel, in 1950. On March 25, 1957 the Rome Treaty establishing the European Economic Community (EEC) was also done. There were six original members: France, Italy, Germany and the Benelux countries: Belgium, Netherlands and Luxemburg.
It is important to note here that the United Kingdom was not part of it. While France was not only an active participant, which ensured the associate membership of her colonies and the inclusion of the privilege in Articles 131-136 of the Rome Treaty, Britain and her own colonies were not part of it. When Britain eventually woke up to the idea of joining the EEC, France, under President Charles de Gaulle, frustrated the intention. It was after Charles de Gaulle left power that Britain was allowed to accede to the Rome Treaty on January 1, 1973. The membership was only for Britain. It did not include former colonies of Britain. In fact, when Nigeria made efforts in the immediate post-independence era to join the EEC as an associate member, all the original members of the EEC, with the exception of France supported Nigeria’s application in 1966. But since there was need for consensus, France’s veto put an end to Nigeria’s aspirations, an experience which prompted Nigeria to provide leadership for Africa in its future negotiations with Europe in the 1970s.
What is again noteworthy about Britain’s membership of the EEC is that it has never been comfortable both for the British and other Member States of the EEC. The discomfort got to the extent that there were calls for withdrawal of Britain’s membership from the EEC in 1975. The British government had to hold a referendum on the issue. The referendum, variously referred to as Common Market Referendum, Referendum on the European Community, or the United Kingdom European Community Membership Referendum, was organised to determine the extent of support for the continuity of UK’s membership of the EEC, especially in light of some public complaints, under the provisions of the Referendum Act, 1975.
The British people were told that ‘the Government has announced the results of the re-negotiation of the United Kingdom’s terms of membership of the European Community.’ Consequently, they were asked the simple question: ‘do you think the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)?’
This referendum question was important but not as important as its timing. The referendum took place only two and a half years after the United Kingdom acceded to the Rome Treaty. Within this short period of time, there were already serious expressions of distrust vis-a-vis the EEC. Even though the results of the referendum clearly showed that the majority of the registered voters were in favour of Britain’s continued membership of the EEC, there is no disputing the fact that the number of opponents cannot be simply disregarded. 17,378,581 people, representing 67.23%, voted in favour of continuity of membership while 8,470,073, otherwise 32.77% were against. On this basis, the House of Commons, on April 9, 1975, voted by 396 to 170 to continue to remain with the Common Market on the basis of the new terms agreed to with the EEC.
In terms of party politics, the Conservative Party, Liberal Party, Social Democratic and Labour Party, Alliance Party and the Vanguard Unionist Progressive Party voted in favour of remaining with the EEC. Against continued British membership of the EEC were the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, Ulster Unionist Party, National Front, Communist Party of Great Britain and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
One last point of observation on the referendum is that the opposition to continued membership did not stop in 1975. It continued to grow in strength day after day to the extent that, in 2016, the opponents became the new majority in favour of withdrawal from the European Union. Like the 1975 referendum, the 2016 referendum was also referred to as EU referendum, but unlike the 1975 referendum, which was aimed at gauging the extent of support for UK membership of the EEC, the 2016 referendum was to determine whether or not the UK should withdraw from the European Union, hence the coinage of ‘Brexit’ (Britain’s Exit) Referendum.
The referendum took place on 23rd June, 2016 in the whole of Britain, including Gibraltar. The electorate was asked whether the United Kingdom should remain a member of, or leave the European Union, under the provisions of the EU Referendum Act 2015 and the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act, 2000. Electorate population was 46,501,241 voters. The turnout for the referendum was 72.2% while the number of rejected votes was 26,033. The outcome of the exercise favoured discontinuation of membership with 17,410.742 votes, representing 51.9% of the votes cast.
What is important to note about the results was that the proponents of withdrawal of membership were in the majority only in England (with 15,188,406 votes or 53.4%) and Wales (with 854,572 votes or 52.5%) while the proponents of remaining in the European Union were in the majority in Northern Ireland (with 440,707 votes or 55.8%) and Scotland (with 1,661,191 votes or 62%). While voter turnout in Northern Ireland and Scotland were 62.7% and 62.0% respectively, the percentages were quite higher in Wales and England: 71.7% and 73% respectively.
As we shall soon see, this factor of Northern Ireland and Scotland’s opposition to withdrawal from the European Union is one of the major impediments to Prime Minister Theresa May’s inability to secure the deal she wants from the European Union leaders.
Effective date of withdrawal from the EU is March 29, 2019 but the date has become non-feasible. Theresa May wanted the new date of June 30, but the EU leaders agreed to April 14 in anticipation of a possible UK parliamentary vote on the Brexit question. The vote is now a fait accompli. The deal has been rejected by Parliament for the third time. But what is this Brexit question that has sharply divided the people of Britain as at today? Where are the people being led to in Europe and in Britain? Why Brexit controversy?
Put differently, as noted earlier, by virtue of Article 50 of the EU agreement, UK’s membership of the EU was to come to an end on March 29, 2019 but the withdrawal of membership was delayed until May 22, 2019 to allow for the possibility of the MPs accepting to endorse Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit blueprint as negotiated with the EU leaders in Brussels. As explicated by Nigel Morris, the new timetable was agreed to following seven hours of often talks in Brussels. It was not confirmed that Mrs May had agreed to the EU’s offer. Whatever is the case, ‘if the Commons rejects her plans in a third “meaningful vote” next week, the UK would have until 12 April to set out its next steps’ (vide The News Matrix, Friday, 22 March, 2019, London, p. 6). And true enough, the Commons has rejected the deal the third time.
The prospects of the third meaningful vote are still not certain and bright, as Mrs Theresa May has no other option left than to push for Brexit without a deal with all its attendants implications. In this case, what are the likely scenarios of the implications for the UK, the EU, and particularly for Nigeria?
Whether or not Brexit eventually takes effect, it has not only served as a centrifugal factor in intra-European politics, it cannot but also continue to divide the European Union for a longer time to come, especially that it has the potential to serve as a new pole of attraction to other would-be dissidents. Besides, effective Brexit cannot but create a situation of insecurity in the UK, in particular, but in the various Member States of the EU, in general.
In other words, the MPs’ non-collaborative attitude has already attracted death threats to many of the parliamentarians. One of them, Anna Soubry, has revealed that she was faced with a ‘very, very serious death threats, especially when people know your home address.’ In the same vein, Lloyd Rusell-Moyle, the Labour MP for Kemptown and Peace-haven in Brighton, has explained that after a TV interview, a man tried to assault him, grabbed and bent his glasses and three grown men had to prise him off him. In his words, ‘this is not normal.’
True, this cannot but be abnormal. However, the problem is derived from the perception of the MPs as a proponent of non-withdrawal of membership of the EU, hence death threats have been sent to some of them. The problem raised here is the rivalry between delegated legitimacy of the elected MPs and the more popular legitimacy of the people who elected the MPs. Who should have priority of place? The majority of the people voted m favour of Brexit on 23rd June, 2016 in the strong belief that Britain’s membership of the unified monetary body no longer outweighed the costs of free movement of immigration. However, their elected parliamentarians are militating against the people’s will which Theresa May has sworn to defend. In fact, the position of Theresa May has clearly sharply divided the EU leaders: some have sympathy for Theresa May while some do not.
A second scenario, is again the possible rivalry between the aftermath of post-Brexit politics and the challenges of trade links with China, Russia’s expansionist tendencies, and fake news. Post Brexit politics has the potential to make negotiations with either China or Russia more difficult, especially from the perspective of the independence of action at the level of British-Russian and British-Chinese ties.
Thirdly, Brexit without a deal has the potential of negatively impacting on EU’s Economic Partnership Agreements with the ECOWAS countries. That Nigeria nourishes very close ties with Britain is a truism. That all the Member States of the ECOWAS have signed the EPA with the exception of Nigeria and The Gambia, which apparently is being influenced by the position of Nigeria, is also another truism. Besides, one major reason why Nigeria has not consented to the EPA is because the main target country of the EPA is Nigeria. Nigeria does not want to and should not be a transit or dumping ground for unwanted or prohibited goods. With eventual Brexit, the likelihood of Nigeria acceding to the EPA in the near future is remote. The influence of Britain cannot but refer in this regard.
Fourthly, Brexit without a deal means the putting in place a hard Brexit by the EU in which case the British travellers would have to cope with long delays, quizzing, customs checks. Disruptions in trade and free movement are to be expected.
Fifthly, British parliament is faced with three options following its third rejection of Theresa May’s deal: provide an alternative to the deal but many have controversially argued that Britain does not have the economic clout to negotiate a better deal; Britain can have a no-deal Brexit, or a no-trade agreement, in which case the ports are expected to be closed, airlines will be grounded, imported food and drugs are to be exhausted within a short period; some food prices are to increase; and a complete reversal of the 2016 referendum. This is in the belief that if there were to be a fresh referendum today, most people would not want Brexit. In fact, on December 10, 2018 the European Court of Justice ruled that the UK could revoke its Brexit application unilaterally and that there is no need for any authorisation by any EU body. In spite of the three options, the likelihood of rescinding Brexit in the long run is remote. The need for honour may not allow. Efforts will surely be made to have a better deal. In this type of situation, there is the likelihood of Britain turning to Nigeria for a more collaborative understanding.
Sixthly, and perhaps more intriguingly, there is not likely to be any winner or loser in the event of Brexit with or without a deal. At the level of the British Parliament, there is no big deal about its rejection of Theresa May’s Brexit deal. The rejection is nothing more than the rejection of the majority of the people’s will as expressed in the 2016 referendum. If it is strongly believed that the people were induced into error in 2016, the lawmakers must be prepared to show that they have a more sagacious mind than the majority of the people. The attitudinal disposition of Theresa May is very patriotic and commendable. It is in defence of the people’s will. For the EU, Brexit will compel it to look at Britain’s complaints in order to prevent new applications for withdrawal of membership of the EU. Britain’s complaints should also constitute lessons for Nigeria and ECOWAS leaders in the conduct and management of ECOWAS integration affairs.