The referendum of 23 June 2016 began the procedure for the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union, which will take place in 2019. But problems regarding the particular situation of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Gibraltar begin to emerge.
United Kingdom Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron decided to hold a referendum for the stay (Remain) or exit (Leave) from the EU in the context of negotiations with the same Union, to exert the maximum pressure to obtain more treatment advantageous for his country. The myopia of this initiative soon became clearer, as this decision gave strength to the political groups that openly supported the exit of the British from the EU: a part of the same conservatives headed by Boris Johnson and the UKIP of Nigel Farage. These were opposed by the majority of the conservative party and the same David Cameron, the Labor party, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party.
Prime Minister Cameron established the date of June 23, 2016 as the day on which the consultative referendum would take place, sure of the victory of the “Remain”, the result expected from the polls and supported by the same Prime Minister. On June 16, a week before the vote, there was a serious bloodshed. The Labor MP Helen “Jo” Cox was faced by a supporter of the exit from the European Union, then identified for the neo-Nazi Thomas Mair, at the end of a meeting for the “Remain” in Birstall, near Leeds, who hit her with three gunshots and several stab wounds. Cox did not survive wounds. Another person, Bernard Kenny, who had tried to save Jo Cox from Mair’s murderous rage, was seriously injured by some stab wounds.
On the evening of the referendum the favorable votes to leave the EU were 51, 9%, among the general surprise. The ones who had voted to stay (Remain) were 48.1%. The rural population of England had the upper hand over Londoners, Scots and voters of Northern Ireland, who had mostly opted for Europe. The two geographical entities, Northern Ireland and Scotland, together with the Republic of Ireland, represent the Gaelic-Celtic part of the British archipelago (Celtic Belt). Within the Brexit process, a front of the Gaelic peoples was established, to which the inhabitants of London joined. In this part of the population the desire to remain anchored in Europe is a counterpoint to the “Leave” of deepest England.
David Cameron resigned as prime minister, defeated by the outcome of the referendum. He was replaced by Theresa May, who decided to activate the procedure under Article 50 of the Union without consulting the parliament. Gina Miller, an English citizen, appealed to the High Court because she believed that the decision should be established by a vote of the Parliament. On March 16, 2017 the British Parliament approved the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017. The following March 29, the British government notified the President of the European Council the activation of the procedures laid down in Article 50 regarding the United Kingdom’s exit from the same Union.
Theresa May dissolved the House of Commons to proceed with new elections, hoping that the activated procedure of the “Leave” could favor his party in the polls. On June 8 the British people went to the polls. The result was surprising because the Conservative Party failed to obtain an absolute majority and it had to ally with a right-wing political formation of Northern Ireland to form the government. The moral victors of the elections was the Labor Party led by Jeremy Corbin.
The procedure of exit from the Union foresees a period of two years during which the United Kingdom will have to renegotiate all the treaties that bind it to the European Union. On November 10th Theresa May declared that the exit date will respect the Article 50 and therefore at 23.00 on 29 March 2019 the United Kingdom will be outside the European Union.
Talks, between Union representatives and British negotiators to agree on changes to the various treaties, started with a precondition by the European Union, negotiating first thing four fundamental freedoms of the Union: free movement of persons, goods, services and capital. The question of the border between the Union (EIRE) and Northern Ireland was immediately raised, as the agreements which had helped to pacify Ulster relied primarily on the free movement of citizens and goods between Northern Ireland and EIRE. The solution found, but still unofficial, provides that the citizens of Ulster continue to enjoy the benefits of free movement, with a substantial absence of physical borders between the two entities of the island. Customs barriers between the EU and the United Kingdom for the control of people and goods traffic should be located in Northern Ireland’s ports and airports.
In 1921, after a bloody war, Ireland became independent from the United Kingdom. Ireland had been under British influence since the 12th century. The English occupation was consolidated between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The influence of Gaelic culture and customs had at first the upper hand on the culture of Anglo-Norman colonizers. In the fourteenth century, to avoid the integration between occupants and occupied, the British crown established, within the statutes of Kilkenny, a series of discriminations against the native Icelanders: prohibition of mixed marriages, use of English, use of the Common Law in the courts. In 1801 the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was established with the Act of Union.
In 1845 a great famine struck the potato monoculture in Ireland, the main food source of the islanders. The production of the potatoes was reset for some years. The Irish population drastically reduced due to malnutrition. A large part of the islanders emigrated to America and Great Britain. The terrible consequences of the famine were a cause of great resentment towards England to which the Irish natives charged the harmful consequences of famine. In previous years, in the face of a famine of wheat that had affected Great Britain, the British government had imported the wheat needed to overcome the crisis while, according to the Irish, the government had not adequately worked to provide for the need to food of the Irish population.
At the beginning of the twentieth century the first troubles took place against the British occupation. In 1916 there was the first real insurrection (Easter rising). The English reaction, with the execution of those responsible for the unrest, resumed the independence sentiment. In 1920 the occupants divided the island between Ireland and Northern Ireland with the Government of Ireland Act. The creation of the Free State of Ireland (Irish Free State), which later became the Republic of Ireland (EIRE), took place after years of guerrilla warfare between the British and the separatist forces. The British remained in Northern Ireland, which had a majority of residents of Scottish, Welsh and English descent. This new entity occupied two-thirds of the historic region of Ulster.
In second half of the last century the contrasts between the two cohabiting populations in Northern Ireland, the British and the Irish, led to a series of violent clashes, “The Troubles”, which culminated in a real low-level intensity war. The British government took over from the local government with a governor. British troops disembarked in Belfast. The many attacks and the subsequent clashes between the police, the unionists (British) and the nationalists (Irish) recorded an impressive number of victims: 50,000, including 3000 deaths. The Good Friday Agreement (Belfast Agreement) put an end to the armed struggle. The agreement provided, inter alia, for the free movement of citizens of Northern Ireland in Ireland and Great Britain.
The result of the referendum in Scotland had been strongly favorable for the “Remain”. This result reflected the expectations of the Scots in terms of the renunciation of independence that had been expressed in the 2014 referendum, a waiver which had the prerequisite of continuing to be citizens of the European Union. The final result of the electoral consultation that established the exit from the EU betrayed their expectations. Therefore the desire for independence came back to life with the will of the “Remain” in the EU expressed by the Scots.
Scotland had joined the United Kingdom after a series of defeats in the independence wars fought against England in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In the early 1600s, King James VI of Scotland also became King of England under the name of James I. The two crowns of Scotland and England were united in the person of the sovereign. In 1707 the two kingdoms were united in the Kingdom of Great Britain.
After two centuries of solicitations for a greater autonomy of government of Scotland, if not of a real independence, in 1997 the second Scottish referendum was held which aimed at the approval of the “devolution”. The first was in 1977 but, although the “Yes” won for greater autonomy, it was not considered valid because it did not reach the minimum percentage of participants in the vote set in 40%. Following the positive outcome of the second electoral test, in 1998 the “Scottish Parliament” was constituted with the issuing of the “Scotland Act”. It had competences on various matters devolved by the central government. The Scottish National Party (SNP) presented in its electoral program of the 2007 elections the request to hold a referendum on Scotland’s independence no later than 2010. The partial victory of the Scottish nationalist party in the elections did not allow the adoption of a law on the referendum. Election held for the Scottish Parlamient in 2011, the SNP gained an absolute majority. Negotiations with the central government began for the referendum on independence.
Following the Edinburgh agreement of 2012, the referendum obtained the legal framework from the London Parliament. The consultation took place in 2014 after an electoral campaign where the parties opposed to independence presented the same as a serious compromise of the local economy due to the consequent exit from the European Union, exit that had been announced as automatic by the authorities of the EU. On 18 September 2014, the consultation was held with a single referendum question: “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”. The “Yes” to the independence were 44.7% while the “No” represented 55.3% of the voters. Scotland remained in the United Kingdom. Those opposed to the exit had won, probably because of the feared expulsion from the EU in case of independence.
Another burning issue is the position of the British Gibraltar against Brexit. The vote for the “Remain”, in the referendum of 23 June 2016, reached a percentage higher than 90% in the British Gibraltar. There were only 900 votes for Brexit on a population of 33,000.
In recent years Gibraltar has been transformed from a military fortress into a tax haven that enjoys the advantage of being within EU borders. Many online gambling companies, banks, multinational companies have chosen to have tax residence on the small Mediterranean peninsula to enjoy tax advantages. Every morning thousands of Spanish workers go to Gibraltar through the only access door to the peninsula, a road that crosses the track of the Rock airport with relative bars and traffic lights. Even some thousands of British citizens of Gibraltar, among which there are a good percentage of people of distant Genoese origin with relative Italian surnames, prefer to live in villas located on the Spanish coast in the immediate vicinity of the Rock.
The reopening of the border post, with relative checks and waste of time, would cause of serious difficulties in traveling to and from the Fortress of both Spanish workers and British citizens living on Spanish soil. It would undermine the survival of the economy of the Fortress for the repercussions on the “status quo” of tax haven. Spain has reserved the last word on the agreements that will take place between the European Union and the United Kingdom on the position of Gibraltar. Old Spanish claims resurgence with the Brexit that, realistically, today could focus on the tax advantage that Gibraltar practices to resident multinational companies and the Rock airport that insists on a part of the territory that has never been given to the United Kingdom.
The English occupation of the small fortress dates 1704 when the English navy, assisted by Dutch troops, occupied the fortress after a siege to the Spanish garrison. There were several attempts by the Spaniards to reconquer the peninsula extending towards the entrance to the Mediterranean and for this reason it was a strategic point for maritime control of this sea. The Fortress was heavily fortified by the English. Attempts to besiege proved ineffective because the British fleet, Mistress of the seas, was always able to supply Gibraltar with men, weapons and foodstuffs during these crises.
In 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht was signed between Spain and England. It established that the Rock of Gibraltar was owned by the British. The treaty decided nothing abaut the question of sovereignty. The agreement also established that no trade should be between Spain and Gibraltar except in the case that the Rock could not be supplied due to adverse sea conditions. It was also established that “Moors” or “Jews” could not reside. In case of sale of the Fortress, Spain reserved the right of pre-emption. In 1729, at the end of the Anglo-Spanish war, the Treaty of Utrecht was confirmed but the question of sovereignty was not mentioned on this occasion.
Spain has consistently claimed its right to re-enter Gibraltar’s possession by appealing to the fact that there was no transfer of sovereignty in the Treaties. In 1969 the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco imposed the blockade of the border. This block lasted a decade, during which the movements between Gibraltar and the rest of the world could only take place by sea or air. The discussions on the sovereignty of Gibraltar were shelved with the entry of the United Kingdom into the European Union, and the consequent elimination of the physical border between the Spanish city of Jerez de la Frontera and Gibraltar,
Brexit is likely to have serious consequences for the United Kingdom. Old ghosts are awakened in the face of the decision to leave the Union, which could have serious consequences for the integrity of the Kingdom over the years. The SNP, always a supporter of Scottish independence, returns to ask for a new referendum. Today the indipendence could have a clear majority of consents, since many of the Scots who had voted against independence in the referendum of 2014. They must note that the British authorities, which to convince them to vote “No” had highlighted the certain ousting of Scotland independent of the European Union, the same authorities are now busy because the whole of the United Kingdom leaves the EU.
The same feeling is found in the population of Northern Ireland. The opposition to leaving the EU is total or almost among the citizens of Irish origin and it is present in a good percentage among those of British origin. The exit could restore the territory of Ulster into the nightmare of the “Troubles”. The proposed solution, of a substantial absence of customs barriers between Ireland and Ulster, would over time achieve a rapprochement with the rest of the island and an isolation from Great Britain due to customs barriers that will have to be active in the Ulster ports. All this in a situation in which the citizens of Irish origin are the majority, as it is proved in the last elections. The reference parties of the Irish nationalists had more votes than the reference parties of the British unionists for the first time.
A possible independent Scotland and a more autonomous Northern Ireland could aspire to re-enter the European Union. But also Brexit is not so sure because a norm approved by the London parliament has established that the agreement that will regulate the exit from the European Union must be submitted to the approval of the House of Commons to enter into force.
(Top photo: Gibraltar – Steve Flickr 2011 CC BY-SA 2.0)
Richard English, La vera storia dell’IRA. Roma, Newton & Compton, 2004