UK’s Many Challenges As It Seeks To Make Brexit Work – OpEd


By Andrew Hammond*

Two years after the post-Brexit UK-EU free trade agreement came into effect, a key shift is underway in UK politics, with the center of debate increasingly turning away from “Brexit versus Remain” toward how best to make Brexit work in practice.

This change has largely been driven by the growing political momentum of the UK’s opposition Labour Party under its leader, Keir Starmer, who is reshaping the debate over Brexit. Following the success of the Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum, plus Boris Johnson’s landslide general election win in December 2019, Starmer has ruled out any government he leads after the next election seeking to rejoin the EU.

A key, pragmatic reason for taking this stance is that the country is in such turmoil, with no clear post-Brexit settlement emerging under the Conservatives, meaning that all of the energies of a Starmer government would need to be focused on this issue. The UK economy is forecast to face the worst downturn of any significant advanced economy in 2023, alongside a wider sense of political drift seen in recent years under the successive leaderships of David Cameron, Theresa May, Johnson, Liz Truss and now Rishi Sunak.

With Labour having ruled out rejoining the EU, and the Conservatives now having very few pro-European legislators in their midst following the purges under Johnson’s premiership, it is unlikely that the UK will go back to the Brussels-based club during this political generation. So, Labour’s focus is now much more on making Brexit work better for the country, given the mess the Conservatives are making.

In a speech last summer, Starmer pledged to “deliver on the opportunities the United Kingdom has to sort out the poor EU withdrawal deal Johnson signed, and end the UK’s Brexit divisions once and for all.” He argued that making Brexit work is essential because the nation “cannot move forward or grow the country or deliver change or win back the trust of those who have lost faith in politics if we’re constantly focused on the arguments of the past.”

The shift in Labour’s position comes in a context whereby support for the UK rejoining the EU has been growing steadily over the past year, with one recent poll suggesting 57 percent would favor rejoining, with 43 percent against. This 57 percent figure is the highest since before the Brexit referendum in 2016.

Part of the reason that public opinion is moving in this direction is the growing evidence that the “hard Brexit” deal, known as the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which the British Parliament ratified on New Year’s Eve 2020, is causing economic damage. One think tank, the Center for European Reform, recently asserted that the UK’s gross domestic product is now 5.5 percent smaller as a result of Johnson’s agreement compared to remaining in the EU.

What is becoming clearer is that Johnson’s deal created structural impediments to trade that are not improving. This has been highlighted by national business groups like the British Chambers of Commerce, with proposals made for additional UK side deals with the EU on issues including import value added tax, veterinary services and professional services to smooth out the many rough edges of the existing deal.

It is in this context that there is growing support across the political spectrum, even within Sunak’s government, for a closer economic relationship with the EU. For instance, Finance Minister Jeremy Hunt has admitted that Johnson’s hard Brexit deal has created damaging trade barriers.

The key remaining challenges to Hunt dismantling these barriers include the fact that his political position within the post-Johnson Conservatives is fragile, given the strong support in the parliamentary party and wider membership for a hard Brexit. A second challenge for Hunt is that there remains a series of irritants in post-Brexit ties arising from Johnson’s 2020 deal, which the Conservatives are finding very hard to resolve with the EU, especially given the lack of trust between the two sides.

Top of the list is the post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland — a complex issue on which the EU enjoys significant support from the Biden administration. So much so, in fact, that President Joe Biden may even cancel his planned visit to the UK and the Republic of Ireland in the run-up to the upcoming 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement unless this issue is resolved.

While a breakthrough cannot be ruled out in 2023, Sunak’s room for compromise is limited, given the balance of political opinion within the Conservative Party. It is possible that this issue will be left to fester, especially with the government’s planned Northern Ireland Protocol bill threatening to rip up the UK’s commitments under the 2020 deal.

The stakes in play are therefore huge and historic, not just for the UK but also the EU. A new, more constructive partnership, which is much more likely under a new UK government, can hopefully bring benefits for both sides at a time of significant global geopolitical turbulence.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.

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Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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