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Brexit means ... ?

On 11 July 2016, the day she became Prime Minister, Theresa May famously said that "Brexit means Brexit". Almost a thousand days and a thousand political convulsions later, both the British public, and increasingly the British government, seem to be as unsure as ever about what Brexit actually means. In the same speech the new Prime Minister assured her audience that she would "make a success of it". Yet having missed the deadline to leave on 29th March 2019 and having to ask for an extension, Mrs May's Brexit looks anything but a success, instead threatening to tear the Conservative Party apart and causing businesses and banks to withdraw staff and capital from the UK citing "continued uncertainty". How did it come to this? Where did it all go wrong? And how, given the current impasse, is the country to move forward and heal its gaping divisions?

Andrew Testa has been photographing social and economic stories across the British Isles and Ireland for the past decade, covering subjects as diverse as the rise of radical Islam and the fishing industry. Some of the stories he covered are from before the fateful referendum of 23 June 2016, others explore the effect of the vote on the country. All of them show a complex picture of a country seemingly ill at ease with itself and facing an impossibly complex decision-making process that will affect generations to come.

Pro-Brexit campaigners have always maintained that the process of leaving the European Union would allow the United Kingdom to "take back control" - of laws, borders and money. While the European Union's sway over lawmaking and the intricacies of a highly complex and integrated national economy may have eluded the average citizen, it was the free movement of labour, and thus the lack of 'control' over the country's borders, that seemed to feature most prominently in public debates and the campaign messaging in favour of leaving.

Much soul-searching and reams of political commentary across the political spectrum have tried to crystallise the reasons why Britain voted to leave the EU and why, now that it had cast its vote, it seems unable to agree on how to do so. Some point to the unconditional opening of the labour market to workers from the 10 new EU countries in 2004, leading to one of the largest voluntary movement of peoples into Britain in living memory, as one of the main factors of discontent. Others go further back and invoke the harsh deindustrialisation and wholesale privatisation of the Thatcher era in the late 1970s and 1980s as the point at which traditional economic structures started to crumble. Despite the lowest unemployment rate in over four decades, immigration continues to be a sensitive subject that undoubtedly influenced the national vote in favour of Brexit.

In addition to the domestic issues and the lack of consensus about Britain's future relationship with the EU, the question of post-Brexit Britain's only land border with the rest of the EU - the border across Ireland - has become one of the most intractable stumbling blocks confronting negotiating teams. Following the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 which brought decades of violence between the Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland to a close, an open border between the two parts of the island has acted as a guarantee of peace and allowed seamless economic activity to flourish. Visiting communities all along the 500 km border between the two parts of Ireland, Andrew documented the mood of locals and the concerns about the return of a controlled, international border.

At the time of writing, Theresa May had taken the dramatic step of calling on the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, to meet with her and discuss ways out of the Brexit quagmire. Parliament and the population remain utterly divided over how to implement the referendum and what, in fact, Brexit really means.
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