London CNN  — 

Britain was a very different place in 2006.

Tony Blair was Prime Minister, the financial crisis that would go on to devastate the global economy had yet to arrive, and a member of parliament named Boris Johnson was eyeing up a run for mayor of London as the Conservative party’s liberal, pro-European candidate.

Taking the reins as the new leader of the Conservatives after the party fell to three successive election losses, David Cameron – another pro-European – pleaded with its members to stop “banging on about Europe” and focus instead on “the things that most people care about.”

A decade later Cameron, by then the Prime Minister, put his money where his mouth was, and gambled everything on a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union – betting that nobody outside Westminster cared about Europe. He was wrong.

That vote – five years ago Wednesday – was supposed to settle the United Kingdom’s perennial neurosis over its relationship with Europe once and for all. It did nothing of the sort.

Boris Johnson finally led Britain out of the European Union in 2020 on harsher terms than anyone believed possible back in 2016. Polling shows that very few people believe the issue has been settled or that it will be any time soon. While the consequences of Brexit are unlikely to be fully comprehended for years, the UK remains as divided today as it was then.

Trouble in Northern Ireland

From the moment the Brexit referendum was announced, it was obvious that the fate of Northern Ireland would be the single hardest issue to negotiate. The province is part of the UK and so has left the EU, but it shares a land border with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state.

Keeping that border open is extremely important, due to the very real risk of sectarian violence between Catholic and Protestant communities.

In order to do so, Johnson and the EU agreed to something called the Northern Irish Protocol, which would grant Northern Ireland a special status within the EU’s customs territory, removing the need for checks on goods crossing the border.

In return, the UK agreed to a de facto sea border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland – much to the dismay of Northern Irish unionists.

Well over a year after the UK officially left Europe, London and Brussels remain engaged in a spat over the logistical realities of the protocol that Johnson himself agreed to.

The UK is supposed to implement the protocol in full at the end of June, but it is threatening to extend a grace period on the protocol to prevent food shortages – specifically of chilled meats – in Northern Ireland. If it does so, the EU could respond by imposing tariffs on the UK.

The British press has labelled this unedifying spectacle the “sausage wars” – and while it sounds silly, it could further destabilize an already tense situation in Northern Ireland.

“Northern Ireland’s political scene is often somewhat precarious, but in the case of Brexit, there is a new sense of common helplessness,” said Katy Hayward, professor in political sociology at Queen’s University, Belfast. “Its immediate future is now determined primarily by the UK and EU, not by political leaders here in Belfast.”

“Leavers, remainers, unionists, nationalists and others can all reasonably say that they are in a worse place five years on,” she added. “That’s why politics feels so particularly tense here.”

A government spokesperson told CNN that the UK was “committed to finding consensual solutions with the EU” but that the “EU must show common sense and take a pragmatic approach.”

Scottish independence push

Northern Ireland might be the most complicated immediate consequence of Brexit, but Johnson also faces a constitutional nightmare when it comes to Scotland.

Scottish voters rejected independence in 2014, when British unionists – led by Cameron – argued that leaving the UK would threaten Scotland’s place in the EU.

But the Scottish National Party, which wants Scotland to break away from the UK, has only grown in popularity since the Brexit vote.

In 2021, it’s become easy to claim that Scots, who overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU during the Brexit referendum, were dragged out by the rest of the UK.

“Since Brexit, the debate in Scotland has become far more polarized around the independence question,” said Nicola McEwen, professor of territorial politics at the University of Edinburgh.

“Many Remain voters who didn’t support independence in 2014 now do, while independence support in general is now strongly pro-EU membership,” she added. “Leaving the UK is now for many the most obvious path back into the EU.”