Brexit is done … but now for the hard part
On a crisp Saturday morning, Britain woke up to a new era. At 11pm on Friday (midnight CET), the UK left the EU, 47 years after it joined and 1,317 days after the referendum in which it voted narrowly by 52 percent to 48 percent to leave. This moment will define the course the UK charts for decades to come.
The time between referendum and exit was marked by schisms and nasty debates in Parliament and elsewhere. A divide had emerged on the political scene. Britons no longer identified with political parties but rather with where they stood in the great Brexit debate. Parliamentary discourse became increasingly nasty, if not soul destroying. Brexit cost two prime ministers their job. Then Boris Johnson, a Brexiteer, took office; he renegotiated his predecessor Theresa May’s EU withdrawal agreement, won an overwhelming majority in last December’s election, and ended thegridlock ended.
A tired nation now needs to look forward. There are those who say the European stage was always too small. They see the UK as having thrown off its European shackles, which will enable the country to chart a new course.
Equally, there are those who remind us that the UK’s trading relationship with the EU is intertwined and represents close to 50 percent of the total trade volume. They highlight complex supply chains and warn of dire consequences if they are broken.
These different views on on trade highlight the crux of the whole Brexit debate: While Brexiteers always painted a positive picture of innumerable opportunities if the country took back control of its borders, laws and money, Remainers highlighted obstacles and negative consequences associated with exiting the EU.
The British do not like scaremongering; they prefer visions of greatness. This is the country and the people that stood up to the tyranny of Hitler and refused to be deterred by the Blitz.
Britain’s relationship with Europe has always been complicated. New prime ministers generally visited Washington long before they went to Brussels. The country as a whole takes great pride in the “special relationship” with the US. Thatcher, Major, Cameron and now Johnson all eyed Europe with a good deal of skepticism. Collaboration was at times more viewed as a necessary evil than embraced with enthusiasm. Thatcher ensured rebates to payments and Major kept the UK out of the euro and Schengen, to name just two examples of British reticence.
Feb. 1 marked the beginning of a new era. The general public will first notice little, because the trading relationship and travel situation are protected under the terms of the transition agreement. However, the real work has only just begun, because the UK now needs to negotiate its future relationship with the EU.
While UK diplomats and politicians may pride themselves on their closeness to the US, the UK shares many values with Europe. On climate change, the environment, animal welfare, etc. the UK government’s outlook is closer to the EU’s than to Washington’s. The same holds true with regard to technology, as illustrated by the decision to defy the US and build Britain’s 5G network using equipment from the Chinese company Huawei.
Feb. 1 marked the beginning of a new era. The general public will first notice little, because the trading relationship and travel situation are protected under the terms of the transition agreement. However, the real work has only just begun, because the UK now needs to negotiate its future relationship with the EU. Johnson insists this phase will end on Dec. 31, leaving precious little time for complex negotiations. The UK team will again face Michel Barnier, the EU’schief Brexit negotiator and a formidable force; keeping the bloc’s 27 member countries united throughout the drawn-out withdrawal negotiations was no mean feat. He will publish his initial negotiating position on Monday.
Brexit is a reality now, whichever side of the debate one chose. As a country the UK must now look forward and try to heal the rift the endless Brexit discussions left in their wake. Johnson said as much in his address on Friday night. He called the day the dawn of a new era and a moment of national renewal. He expressed his conviction that Brexit could be turned into a stunning success. He has broken the gridlock and started to concentrate on the domestic agenda, be it more police on the streets, new funding for the NHS, or the promised roll-out of infrastructure projects. The next months and years will prove whether the UK can indeed build a new constructive relationship with the EU and what its ramifications are for the British economy.
At home, there are many wounds to heal. Nothing has made this clearer than the statements by the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who is calling on Johnson to allow a second referendum on Scottish independence. Polls suggest 51 percent of Scots, who voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, now favor leaving the UK.
Northern Ireland is another choke point. What will happen if the UK and the EU do not manage to hammer out a free-trade agreement over the next 11 months? Will it mean the reinstatement of checks on the currently “invisible”border between the North and the South, raising fears of renewed bloodshed after 20 years of relative peace?
The country needs to be realistic and look forward, and the prime minister’s message was both conciliatory and optimistic. But it also needs to take great care in devising a pragmatic relationship with its near neighbor and main trading partner. Failure to do so would be to the detriment of the British economy. The relationship between the UK’s four nations must be a top priority. Losing Scotland would be detrimental to both sides.
This is where the EU comes in. It too needs to be pragmatic and forward looking rather than dogmatic during the negotiations. In other words, may pettiness take a back seat and wisdom prevail.
- Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources