The long and torturous saga of the UK withdrawing from the European Union is fast nearing the end. The idea that the UK should leave the EU was unthinkable just five years ago. Those demanding it were seen as a group of crackpots. They were mainly on the Right-wing political fringe, but there was also a Left demand for quitting the “capitalist” Common Market. In 1975, Prime Minister Harold Wilson held a referendum three years after joining on the question of staying or leaving. It was the first referendum ever in British political history. He won and the UK stayed.
Fifteen years on, the exit bug bit the Conservative Party. Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet was divided between pro- and anti-EU members. She was challenged for leadership of the party after a record 11 years as Prime Minister and three straight election victories. It was a two-stage contest. She did not win outright majority in the first round and resigned rather than fight in a second round. The Conservative Party has been divided since then between anti- and pro-EU factions.
When the European Economic Community had been established by The Treaty of Rome in 1957, six countries came together to avoid any future war and to gain prosperity by mutual trade in a tariff-free Customs Union. The six are now 28 nations covering West and East Europe. From being a Common Market, it has become a Union with free movement of goods and services, of capital and of citizens. There are no borders between the countries and travel is unrestricted. But the UK kept its border. It also did not join Euro, the common currency.
The quarrel continued within the Conservative Party. John Major, who succeeded Thatcher, faced a leadership challenge but survived. During his years, a closer Union became an unstoppable process. When Tony Blair became PM, the Soviet Union had collapsed and Eastern European countries became free to join the EU. ‘Ever Closer Union’ was the slogan. The Conservative Party remained divided and ran through three leaders who lost three elections. Then David Cameron delivered a fragile victory in 2010 and formed the first peacetime coalition government in recent British history.
To reconcile his party and fend off attack from a party farther to the Right, the UK Independence Party, he promised a Referendum on In/Out. After being re-elected with a majority, he held a referendum in June 2016. He expected to win but lost the referendum. He resigned as prime minister. Theresa May was elected leader.
Since then, Brexit has been the sole topic of debate in British politics. The Remainers complain that they lost 48 per cent to 52 per cent because the other side lied and cheated. But the process continued to detach the UK.
Now at last we have come to the climax. May has got a “deal”. It requires the UK to stay in the Customs Union after leaving since manufacturing and agricultural trade require smooth transport across borders. Migration will be restricted.
Her party continues to be divided. But she has seen off a leadership challenge. Within the next fortnight, her deal will be voted upon by the House of Commons. If it passes, then the Brexit saga is over. If not, there is no telling what follows next.