On June 23, much of the world waited with bated breath to see the outcome of the British national vote known as Brexit (for British exit from the European Union). The result of the vote was wholly unexpected and sent both global citizens and markets into a whirlwind of speculation. In a largely unprecedented move, a very small majority of Britons voted to leave the European Union (EU) and disentangle the United Kingdom (U.K.) from a complex web of regulations, trade arrangements and immigration agreements.
The fallout from the shocking decision will be felt for some time as global financial markets try to deal with the uncertainty. The actual separation won’t occur for at least two years, as the U.K. first needs to elect a new Prime Minister who will invoke the United Nations Article 50 to initiate the secession.
Also, the U.K. has a two-year window to renegotiate roughly 80,000 pages worth of international agreements. But one of the most interesting questions posed by the eventual separation of the U.K. from the EU is: What will the U.K.’s future borders look like, and how will they be controlled?
An Average of 300,000 Immigrants per Year
One major issue significantly affecting the June 23 vote was the EU response—largely viewed as inadequate—to the flood of refugees entering Europe in recent years from Syria, elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa. The U.K. has been receiving an average of 300,000 immigrants every year since 2012, and in 2015 over half of the year’s 333,000 immigrants were from non-EU countries.
British officials in favor of Brexit believe that leaving the EU will allow the U.K. to regain control of its immigration flows. However, recreating a pre-EU international border poses some challenging logistical questions. Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom and a separate political entity than the Republic of Ireland, would essentially form the U.K.’s only land border since Ireland proper is an EU member. Currently, there are no border controls on the Emerald Isle and establishing them could prove to be challenging.
Brexit Means Scotland May Leave UK
Scotland, which voted on a referendum to leave the U.K. in 2014 (it failed), is highly motivated to try again since most of its citizens want to remain members of the EU. If this occurs, more land border controls would need to be established between England and Scotland. Maritime border protections would have to change at ports of entry to process EU-origin vessels in addition to other foreign vessels, as well as EU passengers arriving on ferries from Ireland and France.
The English Channel tunnel (known as the “Chunnel”) that connects England and France by train, has already experienced problems with refugee stowaways on freight trains, and a refugee camp in Calais on the French side known as “The Jungle” has grown to house 3,500 immigrants. Despite bilateral immigration agreements between the two countries that would not be affected by Brexit, uncertainty and perception could exacerbate existing border control issues across the Channel.
British voters have also likely been swayed by recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels. At least three of the Paris attackers entered the EU in clandestine fashion from Syria, then made their way to France. All five of the Brussels attackers were involved in the planning of the Paris event. Many Britons are concerned about rising crime rates in parts of London that have been at least partly attributed to growing migrant communities, and hear anecdotes about violent crimes being committed by migrants in EU countries like Germany that have a virtually open-door policy for refugees. While correlating crime waves with immigration surges is a fine art of balancing statistics with anecdotal evidence, the perception often trumps the reality.
Although the Brexit referendum vote is legally non-binding and the U.K. is going to wait for a new Prime Minister to “push the button,” so to speak, to start the process, the separation is going to happen. Fortunately, the U.K. has time to decide how and where it wants to establish border controls, and more importantly, create new immigration accords and refine existing agreements. However, none of these tasks will be accomplished easily or without controversy, and hopefully British citizens—especially those who voted in favor of Brexit—are prepared to deal with the struggle.