Brexit? Americans Have Been There, Done That

“Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of [life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness], it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.” Though taken straight from the Declaration of Independence, this phrase could very well describe attitudes from protesters in Hong Kong, Kashmir, or the French Revolutions of the 18th and 19th century. No matter the regime type, history is rife with examples of nations shaking off a higher power in the name of sovereignty. 

Though the term “Brexit” has been in the media circuit only a few years, the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union brings to mind another British “-exit.” Though centuries apart, both the American Revolution provides insight into the 21st century Brexit. 

The American colonists’ relationship to Great Britain resembles the current E.U.-U.K. relationship. Some fail to see the resemblance because the U.K. chose to enter the European Union, whereas the American colonists had little say in their colonial relationship. Boris Johnson, new U.K. Prime Minister and long-time E.U. critic, has even claimed the E.U. is in “a slow and invisible process of legal colonisation.” [1] Brexiteers who stand behind Johnson cite frustration at the large E.U. membership dues, failing to recognize the benefits therein. Many colonists felt the same way. With an inability to strike a trade deal with anyone but Great Britain and growing taxes imposed without choice, animosity grew in the American colonies. Sans a seat in Westminster, the colonists felt voiceless in the British Empire. The United Kingdom has arguably more representation in the European Union than the colonists had. The U.K. has members in the European Parliament, Commission, and Council. But while cries of increased sovereignty abound, the U.K. benefits greatly from their membership in the European Union as any Remainer will say. Some Remainers would argue relinquishing a little sovereignty is worth having increased international influence. [2]

There are also striking similarities between the Brexit and colonial negotiations. Great Britain did not want the colonies to leave and used physical force to get them to stay. And as historian Dr. Liz Covart put it, in the Treaty of Paris, “the United States agreed American debtors would repay their debts to British creditors in pounds sterling.” [3] The colonists left with a deal, but with three years nearly gone and no deal in sight, the U.K. just might crash out of the E.U. without one.

  Michel Barnier, chief Brexit negotiator, has made it clear to Boris Johnson that the U.K. is not getting out of the E.U. without a fight. [4] After all, the E.U. was ready to accept what it saw as generous conditions in Theresa May’s soft-Brexit deal and earlier proposals. [5] With only one month until the third (and final?) withdrawal date, the terms of Brexit are as unstable as ever. Ambiguity reigns and both Brits and E.U. member states prepare for an uncertain future in the face of a looming no deal. Some argue that the U.K. was just fine before the E.U. and will be just fine after, but economists forecast financial tumult. Disagreement over movement of goods, people, and services, and the Irish border crisis have led to an impasse. [6] Will life really be that different after Brexit? 

The true cost of the United Kingdom’s “independence” from the E.U. has yet to be felt. Boris Johnson cites hopeful trade deals with the United States and others, but those are not sure outcomes. Lacking the protection they once enjoyed, the American colonists faced stark adversity after leaving their  mother country,. They had to repay British creditors and return Loyalists properties that had been seized. [7] Sound familiar? Though figures vary, it is reported that the U.K. will have to pay an estimated 35 billion pounds to leave the E.U. [8]

Though Boris Johnson will not be be remembered the same way the Founding Fathers were, time will tell whether Brexit will be remembered fondly. Crashing out of the E.U. with or without a deal, the U.K.  has an 804-year-old parliamentary history to lean back on. The United Kingdom is likely to suffer economically in the short term, and likely in the long term as well. As Liz Covart, an American historian, noted “It took the United States and Great Britain time to figure out their new relationship. And it will undoubtedly take the United Kingdom and the European Union time to figure out their new relationship.”

[1] Financial Times, “Boris Johnson on Brexit in 6 Quotes.” https://www.ft.com/content/366432ce-9741-11e9-8cfb-30c211dcd229

[2] The Week, “The Pros and Cons of Brexit.” https://www.theweek.co.uk/brexit-0

[3]Liz Covart, “American Independence: An Eighteenth-Century Brexit.” https://www.lizcovart.com/blog/2019/2/10/brexit-and-american-independence

[4] The Guardian, “EU Will Not Renegotiate Brexit Deal, Juncker Tells Johnson.” https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/jul/25/michel-barnier-boris-johnsons-combative-rhetoric-targets-eu-unity

[5] LBC, “What is the Chequers Deal? Theresa May’s Brexit Plan Explained.” https://www.lbc.co.uk/news/the-news-explained/theresa-mays-chequers-deal-explained/

[6] Telegraph, “20 Reasons You Should Vote to Leave the European Union.” https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2016/06/22/20-reasons-you-should-vote-to-leave-the-european-union/

[7]Yale Law School, “The Treaty of Paris 1763.” https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/paris763.asp 

[8] Quartz, “Everything You Need to Know About the Brexit “Divorce Bill.”

 https://qz.com/1134703/brexit-divorce-bill-explained-why-the-uk-needs-to-pay-the-eu-to-leave/[9]  Liz Covart, “American Independence: An Eighteenth-Century Brexit.” https://www.lizcovart.com/blog/2019/2/10/brexit-and-american-independence

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Hailey Hannigan

HAILEY HANNIGAN is a senior from popular tourist destination, Salt Lake City, Utah. Recently Hailey returned from an internship in Scotland with a head full of ideas and a suitcase full of British crisps. As much as she loves her country, her passion lies in European politics and she’s still debating whether to follow her 4th grade dream of becoming an expatriate. She hopes to pursue a masters in Public Policy abroad (or something fun like that).

Hailey Hannigan

HAILEY HANNIGAN is a senior from popular tourist destination, Salt Lake City, Utah. Recently Hailey returned from an internship in Scotland with a head full of ideas and a suitcase full of British crisps. As much as she loves her country, her passion lies in European politics and she’s still debating whether to follow her 4th grade dream of becoming an expatriate. She hopes to pursue a masters in Public Policy abroad (or something fun like that).

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