Because we come to Vindolanda to study the Roman military and Roman Britain, it can appear as though we operate in a small bubble where our subject matter only spans events that happened almost two thousand years ago. However, that is definitely not the case. At Vindolanda, we see evidence of occupation from early Christian societies. During our trip to York, we saw the remains of a Roman fort, a Viking settlement, a mediaeval minster, and even fortifications dating to the civil war. It’s also not just traces of history that we experience but also the effects of current events.
As you may be well aware, on Thursday, June 23, 2016, the citizens of the United Kingdom voted in a referendum to determine whether the UK would remain in or leave the European Union. In an incredibly close vote, (52% to 48%) the bid to leave the EU won. This is a monumental occasion and one which I think will make history for several reasons. Firstly, this will be the first time that an EU member will have left the European bloc and secondly, it calls for a fundamental change in the UK’s relationship with its continental neighbour since its entrance into the EU almost 45 years ago in 1972. The term Brexit refers to the British referendum and/or decision to leave the EU. I’m not really a fan of the portmanteau of Britain and Exit because it leaves out our lovely Irish friends in the North. Great Britain refers to the geographical island containing the states of England, Wales, and Scotland. The UK, or the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland refers to the sovereign country containing all of the territory on the island of Great Britain as well as territory around the world and in the British isles, most notably, the northern part of Ireland. Therefore, a proper term for the referendum would be #UKexit but that’s not as catchy is it? Still confused? Watch this video: The United Kingdom Explained
Today, I want to briefly provide some context about this decision and also put its potential effects in the context of our archaeological study of sites along Hadrian’s wall. I want to stress that this is not a political opinion piece nor do I promote or detract away from either side of the argument. There are plenty of debates online for that. My intention is to be as informative and objective as possible. If you’re like me, then you are probably a tad confused about some of the jargon thrown around and have a vague but not clear understanding of the UK vis a vis the EU. The EU is an incredibly complex political organisation involving states that have a rich historical and cultural background. While I can’t be an expert on this subject, I hope that this post maybe clarifies a few things.
The European Union as we know it today is the result of several steps in an attempt to improve trade, mobility, peaceful relations, and economic stability in the continent of Europe after the devastation of World War II.
The first step in this process was the creation of the ECSC or the European Coal and Steel Community. This was an agreement between six states (France, Belgium, West Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands) to manage their heavy industry commonly. This was an effort to limit the competition of natural resources and to create a strong alliance that would make the thought of war almost impossible. The ECSC was created in 1950 and in 1958, these countries signed the Treaty of Rome which created the EEC, the European Economic Community. This was a common market between the 6 states and eventually began to include other states in Europe. The UK pulled out of these talks early and remained out of the European bloc. They later joined in 1972, though earlier attempts were made but vetoed by the French government at the time. The modern EU was created under the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992 and member states of the EEC unified their currency in 1999. The final step was the most recent agreement, the Treaty if Lisbon, which extended greater power and control of the European government to the EU centre in Belgium. This was quite controversial at the time of its passing.
There are a few more things that need to be cleared up. First off, there are three main parts to European cooperation. The first is the European Union, an agreement between European states to follow certain laws, adhere to certain trade regulations, and allow the free movement of people, goods, and capital. For the EU, there is a parliament, the European Central Bank, and other such political organs. The next part is the Eurozone. This is the area of Europe that maintains a unified currency, the Euro. Finally, there is the Schengen Area which is an open border agreement between states where passport control is abolished. The difficulty arises from the fact that members of one are not necessarily members of the rest. The UK is a member of the EU but maintains its own currency, the Pound, and retains border control. This video provides a more in depth but tangible explanation: The European Union Explained
The final part to know is Article 50. This is the clause in the European agreement that stipulates the process by which a member state may leave the EU. Here’s the link to the actual article: Article 50
There are a few key points to discern here. Firstly, in the event that a member wants to leave, it must renegotiate its relations with the EU. Furthermore, the state that is leaving doesn’t get a seat at the table once it submits its proposition. Secondly, once the article is passed, a two year clock starts, though it might be extended in extreme cases. Finally, if the state wants to come back, it has to reapply as a brand new member. Essentially, out is out.
The main arguments of this referendum are extensive and complex but from spending a month watching campaign ads, they seem to boil down to economy, sovereignty and control, influence in Europe, and immigration.
So what does this all mean for the UK and the rest of the world? It’s hard to say at this point. As of now, David Cameron, the Prime Minister of the UK, has announced his intention to step down in October. Furthermore, at the time of writing this, the Pound has dropped from 1.49 USD on the morning of the election to 1.36 USD today (Bloomberg Market). This drop has been felt in the world economy as well.
Depending on which channel you watch, different experts spell disaster for the economy while others hail it as an immense opportunity for economic growth. Local effects, like those on heritage sites, are even harder to predict. The EU provides several grants and lots of funding to both scientific and arts research, allows the mobilisation of students and workers from other countries to share their experience and abilities, and fosters travel and tourism. At the same time, the open endedness of Article 50 could result in favourable statuses for workers already in Britain and Ireland, and greater political control could allow for improved legislation.
The best answer to the question, what’s going to happen comes from Socrates: “The only thing [we] know, is that [we] know nothing.” Economics is the study of human behaviour and we are an unpredictable bunch. This landmark decision has introduced a significant amount of uncertainty and even though that’s scary, it’s not necessarily bad. Uncertainty also allows for the opportunity to grow and change and even make positive differences.
At the end of the day, its important to remember that despite our personal beliefs, Brexit seems to be happening and affects the everyday lives of real people. What we can do is sincerely hope for the best situation for our friends in the UK and wish that the situation ends favourably for all parties involved.
My apologies for the long post. I want to repeat that by no means am I an expert on the subject and therefore, if I’ve made any mistakes, I welcome sincere correction.