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Chaos Unfolds in UK as Parliament Takes Unprecedented Actions Over Brexit

On June 23rd, 2016, a referendum was held in the UK to determine whether or not the country should remain a member of the European Union. A majority, 51.9%, of voters indicated that the UK should leave the EU, and though the referendum was not legally binding, the government has committed to following through with the decision, resulting in fierce negotiations about how the departure should be carried out. In response to the referendum, the then-Prime Minister Theresa May invoked Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, giving formal notice to the European Council of its intention to withdraw from the union and allowing negotiations to begin. The original deadline to leave the EU, March 29, 2019, was extended twice as a serious of tumultuous debates in Parliament raged on. The current deadline to leave the union is October 31st, and the current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has made clear that he will resist any further efforts to extend the deadline. The term “Brexit,” a portmanteau of “Britain” and “exit,” has emerged as shorthand to refer to the UK’s departure from the EU.

The decision to leave the European Union is perhaps one of the most significant political choices made by the UK in modern times, and the consequences of doing so are difficult to predict, though nearly all economists predict that Brexit will have a strong negative impact on the European economy generally, and claim that the result of the referendum has already had a damaging effect. However, a second referendum to reconsider the decision is unlikely, and much of the current debate in Parliament is centered around whether the UK should leave the European Union without negotiating an agreement with the EU, a so called “no-deal Brexit,” or whether a deal should be pursued, delaying the governmental process of leaving the EU even further beyond what already has been several years of argumentation. Among experts, a no-deal Brexit is considered the worst of all possible outcomes, as the consequences of doing so would be more unstructured, chaotic, and destructive than making an arrangement with the EU to ease the transition.

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Recently, Boris Johnson, the current Prime Minister of the UK, was elected, having run on a platform of taking the country out of the EU as quickly as possible, even if that means doing so without a deal. Previous attempts to negotiate a deal have been unsuccessful, as Parliament has been unable to come to an agreement as to which deal to pursue. The former Prime Minister, Theresa May, was unable to negotiate a withdrawal agreement, and resigned as a consequence.

Despite Parliament’s ongoing failure to decide upon terms for withdrawal, however, most members of Parliament strongly oppose a no-deal Brexit, for fear of disastrous economic and political consequences, and have taken unprecedented action in an attempt to prevent it, in so doing shattering constitutional norms. Some MPs who oppose a no-deal Brexit are members of Johnson’s party, the Conservative Party. As a result of these party members taking the highly irregular act of breaking ranks with the Prime Minister, Johnson no longer has a majority lead in Parliament, diminishing his political power substantially. In a controversial effort to ensure a no-deal Brexit, Johnson decided to suspend Parliament for five weeks, to reconvene just a few days before the next European Council, in which negotiations for a withdrawal agreement could occur, and just a few weeks before the scheduled Brexit date. This decision was met with fierce opposition from most members of Parliament, who sought judicial action preventing the suspension of Parliament and successfully passed a bill into law requiring the Prime Minister to delay the Brexit date yet again unless a deal is reached. If Johnson defies this law, he faces potential jail time. Amidst the controversy, the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, has announced he will step down before the October 31st deadline.

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As time has progressed since the referendum, public opinion in the UK has shifted slightly in the direction of opposing Brexit, in light of the political chaos the decision has wrought and increased awareness of the likely negative consequences. Additionally, trust in political representatives generally has waned, as citizens are frustrated with the government’s inability to carry out the country’s agenda. Johnson has claimed, not unreasonably, that if the country decides yet again to delay Brexit, citizens, particularly members of the Conservative Party he ostensibly leads, will view this as a failure of democracy. A decision to remain in the EU or a second referendum, while very unlikely, could also be interpreted as a failure of democracy, as while referendums are not legally binding they are intended as a means by which the general public provides direction and sets goals for the government. Though the political crisis in the UK is one entirely of the country’s own creation, it serves as a test of the strength of its democratic system of government, and irrespective of the outcome, Brexit will certainly have major political ramifications during the foreseeable future and beyond.