UK has less control now than it did before Brexit
Happy third birthday Brexit. The entirety of Britain, from coast to coast, has been celebrating wildly, rejoicing at the extraordinary joys of new-found freedoms and the liberation from the tyranny of the Berlin-Brussels dictatorship. Street parties and banners last week decorated towns and villages up and down the country.
Well, that was the idea — an idea gone painfully sour. The harsh reality is that, three years since exiting the EU, Brexit has joined those dark political sagas that dare not speak their name. Few feel there is anything to celebrate.
The International Monetary Fund has forecast that the UK will be the only major world economy to shrink this year, perhaps by 0.6 percent. Even if the IMF is a tad pessimistic, that Britain is lagging behind its peers in the developed world is hardly in doubt. It debunks the myth that somehow the country’s economic misfortune was all a consequence of external issues beyond British control, such as COVID-19 and the Ukraine crisis. The UK simply is not trading as much as before, with bureaucracy getting in the way. Free trade deals have not proven easy to get across the line. Sales to the EU have declined as a share of total British exports.
The British economy is still hampered by labor shortages, as the IMF confirmed. It is hard to look beyond Brexit as the main reason for this, combined with the obstinately hard-line anti-immigration stance of the government.
Even ardent Brexiteer extremists are starting to deflect and avoid mentioning it. Remainer politicians dodge it too, having not yet developed the courage to propose that the country should shift into reverse and acknowledge that this move ranks up there with the Charge of the Light Brigade and the sinking of the Titanic. Publicly stating so has consequences, so the good ship Britannia is being steered toward the rocks with no captain to change course.
So-called Bregret is beginning to surge. This has taken time, given that many are reluctant to admit that, on such a crucial and divisive issue, they may have voted the wrong way. One in five Brexit voters now express regret. Polls indicate that only 34 percent consider that leaving the EU was the right decision. That figure has been hovering in the low 30s for a while, highlighting the hardened bloc that may not ever change its view. About 56 percent believe Brexit was wrong, representing a huge gap. Remember the original 2016 referendum margin was 52 to 48 in favor of leaving.
Blame games are in vogue. A former Cabinet minister in charge of Brexit castigated in unprintable language the role of the civil service. It was Whitehall’s fault. Former Prime Minister Liz Truss also laid into officials this week for her disastrous 49-day term in office last year.
Non-Brits might understandably think that such pitiful levels of support for Brexit will lead inexorably to Britain’s return to the Brussels fold. This could happen, but in the near term a renegotiated relationship with the EU is far more probable, especially if the Labour Party wins the next general election, which should be held by the end of 2024. As the polls stand, Labour looks as if it might coast to a historic landslide, with its lead trending at over 20 percent.
The good ship Britannia is being steered toward the rocks with no captain to change course.
Any incoming Labour government will get an early opportunity. In 2025, the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement will come up for review. While Labour has made clear it has no intention of seeking to rejoin the single market or customs union, it could renegotiate a far closer, more collaborative relationship, including a UK-EU security pact.
The Conservative government is committed to its chosen path. The divine three-word mantra is “getting Brexit done,” whatever that means. After all, Brexit is done. The UK is no longer in the EU. The divorce happened. But somehow the Brexiteers cannot acknowledge this until every last vestige of the EU epoch is erased.
As part of this process, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is advancing plans to rip up the thousands of EU laws that remain on the UK statute book. The current number is about 3,700. At times, the nationalist instincts of some of the Brexiteer cadre portray ditching even a single piece of EU legislation as a success in itself, devoid of any assessment as to its benefits. The danger is that this is all rushed for political and public relations purposes, not for the well-bring of the country.
European leaders have started expressing concerns. They fear that Britain will trash vital environmental safeguards and reduce workers’ rights, binning the commitments the UK entered into on ensuring a level playing field. The talk is that the EU is looking at retaliatory measures, including tariffs on UK goods.
This would undermine what has been a somewhat less chilly EU-UK relationship in recent times. Some progress has been made on the vexed Northern Ireland protocol, even if the final stretch will be very tough. At least it is not a constant war of words like in the past. The Ukraine crisis has reminded all European powers of their shared security concerns. Squabbles between Britain and EU figures seem petty while the continent endures its most serious conflict since 1945. EU states know that Britain, given its military capabilities, has to be a part of their collective security.
Aside from the Brexit-influenced economic downturn, the other driver for Leave enthusiasts — restricting immigration — is also not bearing fruit. The government has failed to reduce the numbers entering Britain and, despite the rhetoric, has not thwarted the small boat crossings from France. Last year, 45,000 claimed asylum in Britain, a figure predicted to rise to 65,000 this year.
Brexit was meant to be about taking back control. The experienced reality is the juddering opposite. Britain has less control over its economic fortunes, little control over its external borders and finds itself marginalized on most major global issues.
Looking ahead, Brexit’s fifth birthday might become a brighter moment if the approach changes. Brexiteers will have to concede that their project requires a major course correction. Setting a new course to a more positive relationship with the EU would not reverse all of Brexit’s ills, but it would be a start and an antidote to the destructive and toxic political atmosphere Brexit created.
• Chris Doyle is director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding in London.