“I prefer not to use the term of divorce from the European Union because very often when people get divorced they don’t have a very good relationship afterwards,” British Prime Minister Theresa May told members of parliament on Tuesday. A day earlier, the British parliament had passed a Brexit bill giving May the power to trigger Article 50, the official notification of withdrawal from the EU. May has pledged to start the process by the end of the month, setting Britain on the road to Brexit. But this is not the first British breakup to make international headlines.
In 2010, each of the boys—Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Harry Styles, and Louis Tomlinson—auditioned for The X Factor as solo acts. Simon Cowell had the foresight to make them a group. To celebrate their new union, they called themselves “One Direction” and became the biggest boy band in the world. But as time went on, the group started to fray. Harry and Louis never sat next to each other in interviews anymore, and rumors of solo careers spread. Then came an announcement in March of 2015: Zayn Malik was leaving the band. Harry wept on stage during a show in Jakarta. One Direction fans entered a mass hysteria.
Meanwhile, the debate in the UK over whether or not to leave the EU was heating up. Two months after Zayn’s exit, former Prime Minister David Cameron was reelected with a convincing majority. Part of his platform was that an in-or-out EU referendum should be put to the British people. Had he won a minority as expected, Cameron would have had to form a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, who opposed the referendum. But with his majority, Cameron could no longer toss out the referendum idea in coalition negotiations and blame it on the Liberal Democrats: he had to make good on his promise. Though he frantically campaigned against leaving the EU, Cameron could not win over the British people. On June 23, defying all predictions, 52 percent of Brits voted for a “Brexit.” The EU’s 27 remaining member countries released the following in response:
For One Direction fans, the statement was eerily familiar.
Neither breakup was economically wise. Every financial institution from the IMF to the Bank of England has projected that Britain’s economy will suffer in the long term outside of the EU. Before Zayn left, One Direction was worth more than a billion dollars. In the absence of financial incentives, both moves were motivated by the Leave campaign slogan: “Take Back Control.” Zayn explained, “It’s not that I’ve turned my back on them or anything, it’s just that I just can’t do it anymore because it’s not the real me.” Brexiteers laid out a range of threats they claimed made the breakup necessary—overwhelming immigration within the EU (which was overblown), huge sums of money sent to Brussels (which was incorrect), and Turkey’s imminent entry into the EU (which was never a real possibility).
For One Direction, Zayn’s departure was the tipping point. Six months later, the band announced it was on an indefinite hiatus. Since then, the boys have started to go in different directions: Niall released a new single, “This Town;” Harry is starring in a Christopher Nolan World War II movie, Dunkirk; Louis was arrested for assaulting paparazzi; and Liam is expecting a child with Cheryl Cole, a former judge on the X Factor ten years his senior for whom he auditioned at age 14.
The Brexit vote intensified worries that the UK will similarly unravel. The Leave campaign won largely thanks to support from English and Welsh voters—62 percent of Scottish and 55 percent of Northern Irish voters chose to stay in the EU. Scotland and Northern Ireland may not be willing to stick with the UK and be dragged out of the EU. The Scots voted to stay in the UK in 2014 (when 1D was still going strong). But Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, announced on Sunday that she would seek the authority to hold a second referendum, citing May’s unwillingness to take into account Scottish interests in Brexit plans. May responded on Tuesday, accusing Sturgeon of having “tunnel vision” and of “creating huge uncertainty.” The main concern for Northern Ireland is the border with the Republic of Ireland after Brexit. Under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is porous—there are currently no border checks. May has said there will be no “hard border,” but it is unclear how she will be able to limit free movement in the EU while also allowing people to cross from the Republic of Ireland (an EU country) into Northern Ireland (part of the UK) without border controls. It is possible the UK will make it through Brexit whole, but one fracture makes a group unstable.
Because Brexit is unprecedented, no one is sure what it will look like. May has confirmed that Britain will not remain in the EU’s single market and will instead prioritize limiting immigration from within the EU. That means that the UK will need to negotiate new trade deals. May and the EU each officially have two years to come to an agreement about a withdrawal, so the UK will officially be out of the EU by spring of 2019. But the British government will not be able to reconstruct everything by then: the negotiations could go on for ten years. And the final agreement will have to be approved by 38 different parliaments, all with overlapping interests. The Brexit breakup is not likely to be amicable. If the EU is too lenient in negotiations with the Brits, it leaves itself vulnerable to further mutiny—a domino chain of Brexit-like splintering by other member countries.
When asked if One Direction will get back together, Niall said, “Of course! We’d be stupid not to go back to it. It changed our lives, there’s no doubt about it. I don’t know when that will be; whether it’s next year or the year after…But we’ll definitely be pursuing that again. A hundred percent.” Like Niall, Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU’s senior official, remains hopeful. “I don’t like Brexit because I would like to be in the same boat as the British,” he said earlier this month. “The day will come when the British re-enter the boat, I hope.”
In the words of One Direction:
“You and me got a whole lotta history.
So don’t let it go.
We can make some more.”