John Oliver tries to explain Brexit on Last Week Tonight


Britain and the E.U. are trying to navigate a Brexit deal before the March 29 deadline. John Oliver tries to explain what’s happening and how we got here

It’s already been two years since the historic Brexit vote that rocked the United Kingdom and the European Union. Since then, Brexit has become a years-long joke, not to mention one of the darkest ones you can make about modern politics. There are lawmakers who don’t seem bothered to even pretend they care about their constituents, voters who don’t understand referendums, and the slow, dawning realization that an entire nation of people is absolutely in trouble.

British people voted to leave the E.U. by a narrow margin, but it was enough to set the entire process in motion. The matter of Brexit has since dominated thoughts in Britain and beyond, growing even more fevered as a March 2019 deadline approaches.

Really, there’s no way you avoid all of the talk about Brexit in Britain right now. It’s there at every turn. Brexit is rolling forward, a growing wave that’s bearing down on not just the people of Britain (though they’ll bear the greatest weight of it all), but also people left outside in the European Union and the rest of the world.

The preemptive specter of Brexit has already had a serious effect on the U.K. economy, pushing it downhill, dropping the value of the pound, and scaring major companies out of the country. That’s even before the U.K. steps out of the European Union. Economic predictions for the state of things after Britain leaves range from pretty bad to absolutely dire.

Right now, March 29 is what’s at the front of every discussion, regardless of whether or not the date is uttered. That’s when Britain was supposed to enter a “transition period” where it could begin calmly taking steps outlined in a plan. You know, the plan that was agreed upon by all parties and was submitted months ago. It’s not like we’re new to this politics things, right?

Except… uh… there is no plan.

British Prime Minister Theresa May had a plan, but her fellow lawmakers weren’t on board with it. The House of Commons voted against it in January, leading to a resounding defeat with no replacement plan in sight. Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn even led a campaign for a no-confidence referendum against the Prime Minister. There was enough support for the matter that members of Parliament held yet another vote, though May made it through by a tight margin.

Why didn’t people like May’s deal? Much of it has to do with Northern Ireland. It shares a border with the independent Republic of Ireland, the result of a long and complicated history of tensions between England and the Irish people. If the U.K. leaves the E.U., that means there would be a hard border between the Brexited Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland (which is still definitely part of the European Union).

The border was a huge part of the violent Troubles, which was only tenuously resolved with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Irish people today argue that a newly instated hard border with checkpoints would reignite the tensions.

What if Britain sees March 29 with no actual plan in hand? It turns there is a kind-of, sort-of plan in place, at least when it comes to that border with Ireland. That’s the last-ditch “backstop” plan, which would mean that Northern Ireland would act under E.U. rules and have a hard border with the U.K.

Meanwhile, customs checks would be required at every single port of entry, including major trading ports. Every single vehicle or craft would have to be inspected, introducing massive delays of up to six days, according to current estimates. Think of what might happen to perishable goods, like food or flowers, which would sit and rot while importers wait for customs officials to complete inspection.

It’s not just luxury items or fancy foreign fruits that could stop at ports of entry. What about medication for people that is shipped in from E.U. nations? Oliver included the story of one mother, whose daughter has cerebral palsy and is dependent on foreign meds to fight off severe seizures.

“A true act of political courage would be to acknowledge that the first [referendum] was fatally flawed.”

Meanwhile, the U.K. government is starting to publish guides for people as to what they should do. People are reportedly beginning to stockpile supplies, while “Brexit boxes” are showing up in shops. These survival kits are full of shelf-stable food, which, as Oliver pointed out, are cans of ironically “foreign” meals like chicken fajitas and tikka masala.

The U.K. government is facing a serious economic downturn, but so, too, will the rest of the world. Economic systems are necessarily intertwined, especially when we’re talking about the economies of relatively large, highly-connected nations like Britain.

Right now, you may be asking a pretty obvious question. Can’t Britain just decide not to go through with Brexit?

Turns out, yes, that’s completely possible. The E.U. put out a press release in December that basically left the door wide open for a British return to the fold. There’s even a boy band, the Dutch Breunion, dedicated to persuading the U.K. to rejoin via the power of music, abs, and synchronized dancing.

How would that happen? Theresa May and Parliament could just agree not to do it, which could be disastrous for them, politically speaking.

What about another vote? It’s certain that a second referendum would take too much time. Besides, it’s not clear what they would vote for — May’s Brexit? No Brexit? Another Brexit entirely? Oliver also argued that the situation was way too complicated for the first referendum in the first place. Brexit isn’t really a simple “yes” or “no” sort of situation, given the complex ties between Britain, Europe, and the rest of the world.

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“A true act of political courage,” said Oliver, “would be to acknowledge that the first [referendum] was fatally flawed,” and cancel Brexit.

Let’s get real: that’s not going to happen. May and other politicians seem absolutely determined to eat it on the world stage. It’s a grim spectacle, but one that appears bound to happen, complete with empty grocery store shelves, bare pharmacies, and assuredly gross family-sized cans of chicken fajitas for dinner.