After years of ongoing processes relating to Brexit, the formal dissolution of the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union is over. On Wednesday morning, MEPs for the EU finally voted to officially ratify the trade agreement between the two governments.
The trade agreement had been in effect in practice since December 2020. However, the MEPs’ vote on Wednesday was the finalization of a process that nearly evenly divided popular opinion in the UK. In 2016, just 52 percent of voters in the UK voted in favor of leaving the EU. The following years saw a protracted and ugly battle over how, exactly, the country would extricate itself from the political union that had defined Europe for decades.
The formalization of the trade agreement marks the ceremonial end of the open debate and negotiations within the UK and EU over Brexit. “This is a divorce, it’s a warning,” said EU negotiator Michel Barnier. “Why did 52 [percent] of the British [population] vote against Europe? There are reasons for that: social anger and tension which existed in many regions in the UK but also in many regions of the EU.”
Internationally, the UK’s referendum results were divisive. Far-right politicians in countries around the EU celebrated the example set by the UK, while socially progressive groups found the move shocking. The referendum also came shortly after the assassination of British Labor MP Jo Cox by an extremist, marking the time period as particularly divisive in Europe.
Acknowledging this, Barnier quoted Cox during his speech, stating “We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”
The trade agreement is far from one-sided, MEPs have explained. When the UK left the EU, there were some elements within the country that thought they might be able to get all of the benefits of membership without any of the downsides. However, MEPs have explained that the trade agreement does, indeed, have real teeth and enforcement baked in.
One of the main wrinkles that made negotiating a functional agreement so difficult was the possibility of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Since the 1990s, tensions between the Irish Republican Army and the British government have been at a historic low. However, the possibility that Ireland, still a member of the EU, would be cut off from the UK raised the specter of new sectarian violence in the region.