On third anniversary, UK still struggling to get Brexit done

Public opinion has clearly shifted since the 2016 referendum, as new economic data on various indicators increasingly dives south

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Published: Sun 29 Jan 2023, 9:40 PM

'Get Brexit Done’: It was a sharp, simple political message that won Boris Johnson a large majority in the December 2019 election. A few weeks later, January 31, 2020 marked the United Kingdom’s official exit from the European Union. Tomorrow, January 31, is the third anniversary of a decision that many have come to regret, not least because there are hardly any signs of Brexit ushering in the ‘sunlit uplands’ that were promised before and after the EU referendum in 2016. A more frequent descriptor of late is that it has been – and will be in the long run – an ‘act of self-harm’, particularly on the economic front.

Judging by the electoral windfall it brought to the Conservative party, ‘Get Brexit Done’ was clearly one of the most effective slogans in the history of British political communication; another that springs to mind is ‘Labour Isn’t Working’, coined by the Conservative party in 1978. It was revived before the 1979 election as ‘Labour Still Isn’t Working’, which helped Margaret Thatcher trounce the James Callaghan-led Labour party. ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ now has competition from ‘Get Brexit Done’ as the poster child of political advertising, and there is a possibility that Labour will use ‘Make Brexit Work’ as its slogan at the next general election, due by January 2025.

Leave aside the cut-and-thrust of political advertising, but as of January 2023 there is a sense among both Brexiteers as well as Remainers that Brexit has not exactly gone well. Public opinion has clearly shifted since the 2016 referendum, as new economic data on various indicators increasingly dives south.

Anand Menon, professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs at King’s College London, has closely tracked Brexit. Often quoted in the British news media, he says in his latest comment last week: “Six and a half years since the Brexit referendum, UK relations with the EU have still not settled into a coherent and consistent pattern. Partly, this is because the process of leaving itself took so long. Partly, too, because there is much still to resolve, not least whether the treaties signed will be fully applied…This is hardly surprising. The 2016 referendum was deeply divisive, and ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ identities persist to this day. Moreover, the two sides are still at loggerheads over the Northern Ireland Protocol. Yet there is a structural element to this too, which implies that, come what may, a stable equilibrium in UK-EU relations will remain elusive”.

New Brexit research by a forum called UK In a Changing Europe coordinated at King’s College London makes for sobering reading. Titled ‘Where next? The future of the UK-EU relationship’, the research paper sets out the state of play on trade, migration, public opinion, as well as the various party positions on the relationship. It also highlights the deadlines and decisions on the horizon in a number of areas, such as financial services, electric vehicles and fisheries. The researchers also examine the ways in which the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) signed between London and Brussels could be deepened, and steps that might be taken beyond the TCA, concluding that changes to the relationship are likely to be slow and incremental. The TCA is due to be reviewed by London and Brussels in 2025.

London mayor Sadiq Khan has been the latest high-profile figure highlighting the adverse impact Brexit has had on London and the UK: GDP down by 5.5 per cent, investment down by 11 per cent, goods and services trade down by 7 per cent; all told, he says the estimated cost to the Treasury in lost tax revenues due to Brexit is £40 billion.

The research paper provides more detail. It notes that the TCA provides for tariff-free trade for goods but little in the way of regulatory alignment, and only very limited arrangements for trade in services. The result has been a substantial increase in non-tariff barriers, while trade deals with non-EU countries have had a very limited impact to date. “Already, the impact on the UK economy has been significant. While the most important factors behind current economic problems in the UK and in the EU – especially the rise in energy prices – are global, the comparative weakness of both UK trade and investment over the past few years is at least in part the result of Brexit. The UK is the only major economy where output remains below pre-pandemic levels”, it says.

Reflecting recent opinion polls, the research paper says that as the negative economic impacts have become more visible, support for Brexit has fallen sharply and is now at its lowest since the referendum. Both Leave and Remain voters have become more open to cooperation with the EU in key policy areas. But Brexit remains a live political issue in Westminster and Brussels: the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill currently going through parliament would allow the UK government to unilaterally suspend key elements of the Withdrawal Agreement, which in turn would be likely to provoke a strong political reaction from the EU, potentially undermining the TCA.

There are already signs of lowering of passions over the Northern Ireland Protocol, with Rishi Sunak and Leo Varadkar, prime ministers of UK and Ireland, both sounding conciliatory notes to resolve the imbroglio. Varadkar admitted earlier this month that the protocol is ‘perhaps a bit too strict’, regretting that it was agreed with Johnson to end the Brexit impasse at the time without the agreement of unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland. For the UK and EU, Northern Ireland is a sensitive place, geographically, historically, as well as politically: there is also the long history of clashes between Irish nationalists, who seek unification with the Republic of Ireland, and nationalists, who insist on remaining within the UK.

The research paper says that the immediate challenge is resolving the issues surrounding the Northern Ireland Protocol, but even if this is achieved, other deadlines and decisions are looming, relating to, for example, data exchange, electric cars, and fish: “Should agreement on the Protocol not prove possible, it is possible that the TCA so painfully negotiated between the two sides will itself not be properly implemented and that the relationship will descend into a running standoff between the two sides. Such a standoff would reduce, if not eliminate, the chances of the two sides putting in place the kinds of additional measures to ease cooperation…The key to a more settled relationship, in other words, is a successful resolution of the current standoff over the Northern Ireland Protocol”.

If, as is widely expected, Labour wins the next election, its government is likely to seek closer alignment with the EU than is set out currently. The party’s plans to ‘Make Brexit Work’ are still cautious and short of detail, but more adverse economic data in the coming years could prompt it to be radical in the relationship with the EU, even if not seeking to re-join the group – a prospect for which there may not be much enthusiasm in Brussels anyway.

- The writer is a senior journalist based in London


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