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Explainer: What is Brexit, and why should you care?

What is Brexit?

British, Irish, and Commonwealth citizens will vote today on the question “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” Brexit is merely the shorthand abbreviation for “British exit,” which refers to the UK leaving the European Union.

What is the European Union?

After two World Wars devastated the continent, Europe realized that increasing ties between nations through trade might increase stability and lead to peace.

In 1958, this led to the creation of the European Economic Community (EEC), an arrangement that increased economic cooperation between six countries: Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

Over the next few decades, more countries joined (there are now 28 member state) and it morphed into a federalist-style economic-political union. The UK joined in 1973, and in 1993, the name was changed to the European Union.

The EU institutions are: the European Council, the Council of the European Union, the European Parliament, the European Commission, the Court of Justice of the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the European Court of Auditors.

Why is there a push for the UK to leave?

One of the main principles of EU membership is “free movement“, which means any citizens living in an EU country can live and work in another member nation without needing a visa (it’s similar to how in the United States you don’t need a work visa to move from California to Texas or live in Missouri and work in Kansas). This prevents a country from having much say into who can enter, and some people in the UK prefer to have more control over their borders.

The EU also imposes numerous restrictions on businesses, requires full regulatory compliance, and acceptance of the supremacy of EU law. Critics of the EU also say that the UK could get many of the same benefits of trade without having to pay billions of pounds (the UK currency) to be a member state. (Denmark and the UK are two member states that have opted out of using the euro, the official currency of the eurozone, which consists of 19 of the 28 member states.)

What is the argument for the UK staying in the EU?

Those who support the UK remaining in the EU (sometimes referred to as Bremain), say that leaving will hurt trade.

The EU is likely to impose stiff tariffs and other restrictions on the new non-member country, making it more expensive to buy products and services from EU states. They also say that Britain has benefited from migration into the country and that leaving will harm citizens who are currently living and working in EU nations. Additionally, unemployment could increase as global manufacturers moved to lower-cost EU countries.

How does the decision affect the U.S.?

As in the UK, there is support and opposition of Brexit in the U.S.

President Obama warned that the “U.K. is going to be in the back of the queue” on trade deals with the U.S. But critics of the president say there is no reason the U.S. couldn’t make separate trade deals with the UK and the EU.

Another concern is that the UK leaving the EU weakens geopolitical stability in the region. Without the UK, the EU could appear to have lessened influence, which could embolden Russia. But skeptics of this claim say that it is NATO, not the EU that plays the major security role in that region.


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