Robust debate needed as Brexit cracks start appearing
When the prime minister appoints a minister for Brexit opportunities, it speaks volumes about the state of affairs in the UK. This happened in February, nearly six years on from the historic June 23, 2016, referendum result that saw the British people vote to leave the EU. A fully fledged minister is now tasked with rummaging through the whole spectrum of government to find a needle in the Whitehall haystack.
The whole notion supposes that being outside the EU affords Britain a raft of unidentified opportunities; pots of gold hidden under the ministerial floorboards. It speaks to the Brexiteer view that Brussels had, with no democratic mandate, deluged member states with arcane rules and decrees. Myths about the EU abide in the minds of many, egged on by the likes of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who marketed the myth that the EU dictated “what shape our bananas have got to be.”
The curvature of bananas was not why Britain left the EU, but the image of the annoying interfering Brussels bureaucrat remains potent. To shred their silly little rules is red meat to Brexiteers, even if there is not much meat on this bone.
Nostalgia is supreme in Brexitland, harking back to an imagined glorious past. It seemed desperate when the government announced it would be allowing retailers to sell once more in imperial measurements — pounds and ounces. This is Britain going backward, not forward.
The reality is that golden post-Brexit opportunities have not yet appeared. No reincarnated British way of life has emerged from the retreat from the EU.
The debate as to whether Brexit was worth it marches on. Even anti-EU stalwarts admit that the country has yet to feel the benefits, but argue that it is hard to distinguish between the impact of Brexit and those of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian war on Ukraine.
Except this is not entirely true. Leaving the EU has clearly hit the British economy. The pound fell by 10 percent immediately after the referendum. Brexit had an inflationary effect. Food prices have risen as a result. Business investment has also dropped. The Office for Budget Responsibility reported in March that Brexit “will reduce long-run productivity by 4 percent relative to remaining in the EU.”
Brexit was meant to liberate the country, encouraging it to go global and trade more. But the governor of the Bank of England claims it has had a negative impact on trade, as did his predecessor. Yes, the UK has signed a number of trade agreements, such as those with Australia and New Zealand, but this hardly makes up for no longer being part of the European single market.
While Britain can still trade with the EU, it is the additional checks and controls at the borders that have slowed things down. The lorry queues to the port of Dover are something to behold. Airlines complain that Brexit has led to staff shortages due to a lack of European workers, which will keep the delays and travel chaos in play for years. Next year, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development predicts that the UK will have the lowest growth in the G20 bar Russia, which of course is heavily sanctioned.
There are other costs too. Even ministers fear a brain drain from the country. If the spat with the EU continues, Britain may get shut out of the bloc’s flagship €95 billion ($97 billion) Horizon research and innovation program. The state of the union is also creaking, with many in Scotland seeking a new referendum on independence, arguing that an independent Scotland could then rejoin the EU.
Leaving the EU was meant to liberate the UK, encouraging it to go global and trade more.
Northern Ireland remains the most vexed issue on the Brexit horizon. The British government is pushing ahead with a law to rip up the trading arrangements for the province. The “oven-ready” deal Johnson boasted about and signed clearly did not cook this part of the agreement to his satisfaction. The EU unsurprisingly rejects any attempt to unilaterally change the agreement and has threatened retaliation. Quite why London thinks it is acceptable to do this is hard to fathom. Ministers argue that the deal is not being implemented as they had envisioned and that it jeopardizes the Good Friday Agreement.
The bill has passed its first stage in the House of Commons. It may become law by the end of the year and, in the worst-case scenario, could trigger a whole raft of retaliatory measures from the EU. Above all, what will it do to the UK’s standing in the world as a champion of the rules-based order?
Immigration was the determining issue in the vote. Immigration from the EU has fallen, but not from non-EU states. The UK’s desperate move to dispatch asylum seekers to Rwanda highlights a government that has run out of ideas and is prepared to go any lengths to demonstrate how anti-immigration it is.
For the time being, no mainstream political force in the UK is pushing or even hinting at reversing the Brexit process. The leader of the main opposition party, Labour’s Keir Starmer, on Monday categorically ruled out rejoining the EU, with almost a third of the party’s supporters having voted to leave. A shadow minister was even ticked off for suggesting that, at some point, the UK should rejoin the single market and customs union.
Yet, in a few Brexit-supporting corners, doubts are slowly appearing. One leading Brexiteer commentator wrote in The Times newspaper last month: “To deny the downsides of Brexit on trade with the EU is to deny reality.” That is a more honest appraisal than one could ever expect from a politician.
Too many in the British system dodge the robust debate required. Too many are content to orchestrate the next round of their blame game. It is either Brussels, “lefty” lawyers, foreign courts and, nowadays, even civil servants, who have apparently prevented a real, idealized Brexit. The chaos surrounding the current government, which was hit by a new wave of resignations this week, is an ongoing distraction.
A proper debate is what has to happen. Brexit created a bitter, deep division in Britain, particularly England. Such is the toxic nature of the debate that neither side wants to admit the other has a point or that they themselves might be wrong. It needs the shackles on the debate to be lifted. This does not mean rejoining the EU, but there may need to be a complete reassessment of the UK-EU relationship to rebuild a constructive partnership that better suits all sides. The sooner that happens, the better for all.
• Chris Doyle is director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding in London. Twitter: @Doylech