Brexit Explained for Americans: The UK/EU Relationship – Opting Out

Britain Brexit United Kingdom European Union

This is for all the Americans, and whoever else is a bit confused, that feel like they’ve missed a meeting.

Before we can begin to explain what Britain leaving the European Union (EU) entails, it might first be useful to explain what precisely ‘Britain’ and the ‘European Union’ are.

What is the UK anyway?

Apologies for getting granular, but establishing what exactly we mean by the ‘United Kingdom’ is important in order to understand the problem of the “Backstop.”

Contrary to Mrs. Doubtfire (who has a Scottish accent despite claiming to be from England), England is not an island.

The United Kingdom is a union of countries in the British Isles, governing all of the countries in the island of Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales), plus Northern Ireland.

This is the technical meaning of the titles, but they’re often used interchangeably in an informal context. Even the Prime Minister will say “Britain” when referring to the whole nation, not just the countries on the island of Great Britain. With me so far?

The UK’s head of state is the Queen, who presides over a parliamentary democracy that governs the whole union, with each country having its own parliament with delegated powers. The British Parliament is made up of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The Commons consists of representatives from 650 constituencies across the nation — one Member of Parliament (MP) for each constituency. The House of Lords is the second chamber of Parliament, and is made up of those appointed by the Queen under advisement by the Prime Minister. They convene in the Houses of Parliament in London to vote on legislation.

After a general election, the political party with a majority in the Commons is invited to form a government, after which the leader of that party is appointed by the Queen as Prime Minister. The government is elected to enforce British law.

To make a corollary with US politics:

  • The Prime Minister is like the President (except the official head of state is the ruling monarch. The entire government including the PM is considered ‘Her Majesty’s Government’.)
  • The House of Commons is like the House of Representatives.
  • The House of Lords is like the Senate (except Lords are not voted in by the people; they are appointed by the Queen.)
  • The British Parliament is like Congress, but with ultimate authority over the whole country, with localised powers granted to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly of Wales, and the National Assembly of Northern Ireland, similar to how some powers are localised to the individual states.

What is the EU anyway?

The EU is an economic and political union of 28 countries on the continent of Europe. It is, first of all, an agreement to standardized trade customs and a free trade agreement between member states. It also has standardised laws that are decided by the European Commission. The Commission is overseen by the European Parliament, made up of 750 MEPs elected by voters from member states. Member states of the EU are also subject to the European Court of Justice.

The European Parliament differs from British Parliament in a key sense: It does not have right of initiative, meaning it cannot propose a new law. The executive power lies with the European Commission. But the Parliament provides an opportunity for members to veto laws, to censure the Commission, and to debate policy.

The Eurozone is an agreement between certain European states to adopt the Euro as their state currency in an effort to streamline interstate trade. The Euro’s circulation is determined by the European Central Bank (ECB). Not all members of the EU use the Euro. The UK rejected the adoption of the Euro in favor of keeping the pound sterling.

How EU membership works

The foundation for the UK’s membership of the EU was in the European Economic Community, which was voted on in a referendum in 1975. 67% of voters chose to stay in the common market (initially entered in 1973 by the Edward Heath government). This was initially merely a free trade agreement between member states, enacting frictionless trade.

It has since morphed, however, into a political union with greater law-making powers given to the European government. The Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992 creating the EU out of the former Community, of which the UK was a member. Despite the protestations of the “Maastricht Rebels” within the prevailing Conservative Party, a referendum on an agreement to the Maastricht Treaty was rejected.

Since signing 1990, over 50,000 laws have been passed in the UK as a result of EU policy. These pertain to environment, labour, capital, and regulate goods coming into the UK, the most infamous being the shape of bananas. The UK is also subject to the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy, as well as freedom of movement between member states.

American corollaries

Imagine if, in 1972, the Richard Nixon administration enacted a free trade agreement between countries in North America, called the North American Economic Community. It meant that frictionless trade could exist between the United States, Canada, Mexico, and other countries on the continent. Then, in 1975, a referendum was approved by Congress, meaning that the American people could vote on the country’s membership — the population voted in favour by 67%.

Fast-forward to 1992. Leaders in North America sign a treaty forming a political union with the countries that formed the North American Economic Community, creating the North American Union. This Union formed a new higher government that could pass laws enforceable in the United States. The citizens of Mexico, Canada etc., could elect members of North American Congress that could appeal to the North American Commission to enact policy in the US.

The US would then be subject to over 50,000 laws made by people outside of the US. The US would have to, by law, pursue the same agricultural and fishing policies as the rest of the continent, permit free immigration from Mexico and Canada, and submit to a High Court outside of the US.

Why people want the UK to leave the EU


Although initially supportive of the “European Project” as far as the common market was concerned, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher eventually became one of the earliest influential Euroskeptics. In her famous “Bruges Speech,” she echoed the modern classical liberal argument against further European integration:

“We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level with a European superstate exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”

Though there are things about the EU that classical liberals ought to admire, like further trade integration and peace between states, having more centralized state intervention is not optimal. Libertarian-leaning Brexiteers such as Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell oppose the EU on the basis that it is a fundamental threat to individual freedom.

Democracy and self-determination

Brexiteers couch their argument in terms of “taking back control.” They are not libertarian per se, but believe that laws governing the UK should be made in the UK. Net, the UK pays the EU £13 billion a year, or around $17 billion, in exchange for what amounts to what they see as a largely symbolic role in European Parliament. In any case, debates aren’t as meaningful as the domestic Parliament, since European Members of Parliament cannot propose legislation.

Leaving the EU would return a large amount of power back to the British Parliament, plus free up that £13 billion to be spent on British needs, such as the NHS.


The central theme of the UK Independence Party’s Brexit campaign was anti-immigration, specifically anti-third-world immigration that is being exacerbated by the EU. The migrant crisis has also put pressure on governments throughout Europe to tackle what is seen as cultural disruption by the influx of immigrants.

Next week …

The current situation and challenges with Brexit, the referendum, and what the most likely outcomes are if/when the UK leaves the EU.

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James Smith

Writer and film-maker from the United Kingdom. Digital nomad. Author of 'The Shy Guy's Guide to Travelling'.