LONDON – The United Kingdom is on the verge of leaving the European Union in a process that has now entered history with its own word: Brexit.
Its citizens could be on the brink of a historic change, and uncertainty as to what exactly such a withdrawal will mean is palpable.
The UK is scheduled to leave on March 29, two years after Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, a mechanism to notify the EU of her country’s intention to abandon the European bloc after the population voted to do so in a referendum.
The results of that 2016 plebiscite exposed a divided nation. Leave won, claiming 52 percent of the overall vote. Voters in England and Wales came out in favor of leaving, while Scotland and Northern Ireland plumped to remain.
Sunderland, in northeastern England, was the first city to announce its referendum results; 61.3 percent voted to cut ties with the EU.
The city is home to a manufacturing plant belonging to Japanese carmaker Nissan that employs some 8,000 people.
There was concern among the workers about its future.
“Sick of hearing about it (Brexit) mate,” said factory worker Sean Pocklington, 31. “Just hope the place doesn’t shut down.”
Fiona Collins, a volunteer at the Citylife Church food bank whose husband works at Nissan, said she was not worried about the country’s future. “I believe the decision to leave the EU is actually a huge opportunity for us rather than a crisis.”
The port city traded in coal and salt in the past, and its Wearmouth Colliery was once the world’s deepest coal mine. The pit closed in December 1993. Sunderland’s Stadium of Light, home to the local soccer team, Sunderland AFC, now stands on the site of the former mine.
“I voted out. Out, to leave,” Ethel Dodds, 60, a regular customer at the nearby Colliery Tavern, said in the pub where miners used to go for beers after a long day’s graft and today acts as a gathering place for fans who attend matches at the stadium, across the road.
The money paid into the EU could instead be spent on hospitals and schools in the UK, Dodds opined.
Another pub-goer, Stan Bestford, 60, said he would like to see people in the UK not living on the streets and families not having to go to food banks.
“Stop sending aid to foreign countries and start helping our people,” he said.
Karld Serveld runs Pete’s Fish Factory, a fish and chip shop in the south-eastern English seaside town of Ramsgate. Despite being a staunch “leave” supporter, he is concerned about his supply chain as most of his fish comes from Scandinavia.
But he thinks these problems will be resolved quickly and believes Britain is big enough to look after itself without the EU.
Tony McClure, 52, a fisherman who works out of the southwestern port town of Newlyn in Cornwall, said the EU has provided important economic help that his trade and region needs.
He said he had received three EU grants to acquire and also maintain a new engine for his boat.
“It’s quite rural (in the southwest), there isn’t a lot of big heavy industries so we rely heavily on tourism and local investment,” he said. “The grants we get from Europe are vital.”
McClure said he only knew of one fisherman other than himself who had voted to remain, and the main reason most voted to leave was because of what he described as the fishing quotas set within the EU.
He said he was only allowed to catch 7 percent of the haddock and 15 percent of the cod in UK waters: “There’s a lot I can’t catch and the French and Belgians can fish right up to the six-mile limit.”
He was concerned about the cost of exporting his catch after Brexit. “Our fish goes as far away as Italy, Spain, Germany and Switzerland, it goes all over Europe depending on demand, it’s important to get the fish into Europe tariff-free.”
Newlyn harbormaster Robert Parsons, who voted to leave “for immigration and because the EU council is unelected,” also lamented the fishing quotas.
He said being able to catch more fish meant more money for the harbor and local community. “The crux of this whole situation is the quota, how much you’re allowed to catch.”
Parsons said he has had to turn boats away to avoid disputes: “If I have the French or Spanish land here, the local fishermen don’t like that as it reduces the price of their fish.”
Some fishermen have threatened to pour diesel over each other’s catches as a result of this competition, according to Parsons. “It can get quite vicious,” he said.
Truck driver Stuart Hatch voted to remain so his children could enjoy the benefits of Europe. If Brexit brings an end to the freedom of movement, his industry will be in a difficult position, he said. His clients needed fast delivery and relied on just-in-time production.
Fruit and vegetables, just like fish, will spoil if border checks provoke delays, he said. But for Hatch it was also about the workforce: the UK needed overseas workers because skilled drivers were in short supply.
After Brexit, the two countries comprising the island of Ireland will likely adhere to different customs rules and there could, therefore, be a need for border checks. But neither the UK nor the EU want such a hard border, and the Irish backstop is the mechanism that negotiators agreed upon to prevent that from happening.
The backstop, a sort of insurance policy to maintain a soft or free-flowing border between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (part of the EU) in the event that the UK crashes out of the bloc with no deal, has proved unpopular among some, including within May’s own Conservative Party.
Mervyn Johnston, who works in a garage in Pettigo, a small border village straddling the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, said the creation of a hard border would be “very inconvenient.”
Johnston, who voted to remain but has since changed his mind, said: “People will use it to stir up trouble – it won’t go back to what it was but there will be a rise of smugglers – people want to trade freely they don’t want the extra cost.”
Tara Kinaton works at Mister Cs fast-food restaurant in Londonderry, near the border with the Republic of Ireland. She said she gets a lot of customers coming over the border and that people “don’t want the hassle” of having to produce documents. “We serve fast food, why would anyone come to us in they have to go through border checks?”
In Londonderry, which is also known as Derry, Northern Ireland, Danny Caldwell qualified Brexit as a “disaster for everyone in Ireland,” adding that nobody who voted to leave considered the real implications for life in Ireland.
The open border, a now-invisible 499-kilometer (310-mile) line running through countryside, farmland and bisecting main roads, is enshrined in an international peace deal that in 1998 helped to extinguish decades of sectarian and political violence in Northern Ireland; a period known as the Troubles.
Over 3,000 people died during the Troubles, which saw unionist paramilitaries from largely Protestant areas, who identify as British, and republican militias from largely Catholic areas, who sought a re-unified Ireland, trade terror.
Caldwell said he did not know how the Irish border issue would be resolved. “You can drive over it 19 times a day without knowing. When I was younger the British stopped to question me every single time. Now you can’t see the border, you don’t know it’s there.”
Up in Scotland, the future of an important export was also up in the air. The UK’s northernmost country exports about 90 percent of its whisky to over 180 international markets, according to the Scotch Whisky Association.
“Brexit represents a seismic shift for our industry,” the SWA said on its site, assuring that its members were working to plan and adjust for it.
The SWA considers that a no-deal Brexit “would damage our industry” and “must be avoided,” as such a scenario would add “cost and complexity into the production and export of Scotch Whisky.”
John Harris, who owns a post office in Fiskerton, the Midlands, as well as some cows, said: “I think it’s the uncertainty that’s worrying, nobody knows what will happen.”
Magdalena Piszczek lives in Wembley, northwest London, having moved to the UK from Poland nine years ago. She said her daughter gets a better education in the UK and it would be hard to move home because there are better opportunities in the UK. “She can still live in Poland if she chooses,” she said of her daughter’s future.
But she feared Brexit could make it difficult to travel home to Poland for holidays with her Jack Russell, Tiny, who would need a pet passport.
It was still unclear on what terms the UK would leave the EU, with lawmakers having rejected May’s initial deal hammered out with the EU, the fruit of years of negotiations.
There was also talk of extending the March 29 deadline, which would delay Brexit, as well as the floating of a second referendum, with the opposition Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn appearing to now throw its weight behind that.
Citizens and industries across the UK, including the banking, tourism and farming sectors, and many workers who rely on exporting products or bringing in goods from Europe, will have to adapt in a post-Brexit Britain, whether there is a deal with the EU or not.