By Arab News
By Mohamed Chebaro*
Division, discord and disaster are three words that could accurately describe Brexit five years after the vote that changed Europe and will likely test UK-EU unity for decades to come.
“This government got Brexit done and we have already reclaimed our money, laws, borders, and waters,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on last week’s fifth anniversary of the divisive referendum of 2016. Johnson, who led the “Leave” camp, celebrated his government “getting Brexit done,” disregarding the divorce costs that will likely have to be paid, despite all the upbeat messages about “Global Britain,” “building back better,” and “leveling up” — promises made every day by Johnson and his ministers.
The initial political and economic aftershocks of Brexit are still reverberating across the UK, and maybe their true impact has not yet been felt due to the government’s splurging of money both before the pandemic hit and since. But the celebrated “taking back control of our destiny” has left a nation “significantly divided over the merits of Brexit,” according to polling expert Sir John Curtice.
Britain voted by a narrow margin of 52-48 to leave the EU. New polls indicate that, if the referendum were repeated today, the result would be in favor of staying in the bloc, although with a slim margin not too dissimilar from the one seen in 2016. I am not saying rejoining the EU should be an option, as not enough people currently support such a move, but the fractious relationship with the UK’s immediate neighbor over sausage exports, fishing rights, vaccine wars, and a border within Britain is alarming.
The UK’s trade with the EU before Brexit accounted for about half of all the country’s imports and exports. This has plummeted by 20 percent since the economic break at the end of 2020, although pandemic-related disruption makes it hard to tell how much of that is due to Brexit.
Beyond trade, Brexit has claimed the careers of two prime ministers. David Cameron championed staying in the EU, but his campaign to “Remain” failed. His successor Theresa May tried to strike an agreeable divorce deal, but she was voted down by uncompromising Brexiteers within her party.
Despite his blustering rhetoric, Johnson leads a nation divided, as Brexit has challenged the bonds between the different parts of the UK. It has particularly increased support for an independent Scotland, since the majority there voted to stay in the EU. Brexit has also destabilized Northern Ireland, which borders the Republic of Ireland, by imposing a trade barrier with mainland UK, alienating the London-leaning Irish Unionists and threatening an already-fragile peace that was established there more than 20 years ago.
Meanwhile, the divorced couple look set for more acrimonious battles, as the UK looks for EU flexibility and accommodation, while Brussels asks London for greater compliance with signed agreements.
According to pro-Leave politicians’ promises, exiting the EU’s rules and regulations was supposed to free the UK and make it a global, cutting-edge nation, thriving on innovation and economic leadership in a changing world. However, despite the country’s vaccine rollout success compared to EU countries, all early economic forecasts point to dire times ahead.
Trade deals with the rest of the world have proven elusive. Former US President Donald Trump’s stance and support for London leaving the EU did not translate into an express trade deal that could have upset his protectionist “America First” stance. His successor, Joe Biden, does not seem to be rushing for one either, as his administration’s geostrategic priorities are focused on multilateral relationships. Kenya, Canada and Japan have signed deals based on previous EU rules, with minor expansions agreed with Tokyo. The UK and Australia have agreed an entirely new agreement, but it has led to farmers across Britain sounding the alarm bells.
A reason for leaving the EU that was close to most Brexiteers’ hearts was the need to stop the flow of refugees and migrants into the UK. But they are still crossing the English Channel despite the numerous Border Force patrols. Meanwhile, the gap left by the departed European labor force is being felt by businesses across the country, which are scrambling to find workers, particularly unskilled ones, for jobs such as harvesting the UK’s daffodils.
The list of outstanding issues to be solved in post-Brexit Britain is long and the new rules will take decades to stabilize. To be fair, the UK’s entry into Europe in 1973 took years to streamline in terms of the socioeconomic and political relations. The divorce process might take many years too.
Brexit’s positive and negative impacts are largely yet to be felt, but the early signs in my view are not good. Clearly, leaving a large common economic market that underpinned peace, security and prosperity in post-Second World War Europe will not be without its costs.
Brexit was sold as a way to enhance the UK’s control of its future, but instead we notice every day the shrinking British influence abroad and signs of the fragmentation of a loosely united kingdom. By signing up to Brexit, I doubt voters signed up for trade wars with Europe, for Northern Ireland to be separated, even by a virtual trade frontier in the Irish Sea, or for warships needing to be deployed to the island of Jersey, close to France, due to a fishing protest.
Despite all the noise made by this government about a Union Jack-waving, powerful nation, I can only see weakness. And the fact that negotiations are still ongoing about whether sausages are compliant with the existing rules is a sign that, maybe, Brexit is not yet “done.”
- Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist with more than 25 years’ experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy. He is also a media consultant and trainer.