After Brexit, our European neighbors simply say: “Nein, thanks.”
Finally, we’re decent Europeans. After nearly seven years of voting to quit the European Union, Britons are now contributing to it. Although not exactly how anyone would have preferred, we are diligently and steadfastly forging the bonds that unite the 27 remaining EU member states.
Look at the study that was conducted around Europe and released yesterday to see how support for leaving the EU has decreased across the board since 2016. Pro-leave sentiment has plummeted in every EU member state where data was available, from Finland to the Netherlands, Portugal to Hungary. Even the most ardent anti-EU parties in Europe have given up on really quitting the union; there is no more discussion of a Frexit or an Italexit; instead, they are only interested in reforming it from within.
What could possibly explain such a clear shift in European thinking, I wonder. Some would have you believe it was the conflict in Ukraine or the Covid epidemic, both of which acted as indicators of the importance of global cooperation. But the most logical reason comes to mind. Since the Brexit referendum, Europeans have glanced at Britain and said, “Nein, Danke.”
With five prime ministers in six years, they can see our political dysfunction. They can see how Brexit polarized the country and injected poison into the fabric of our society. They see Britain’s economic woes as being specifically related to Brexit rather than, say, the pandemic, with a 5.2% shrinkage in GDP and a 13.7% fall in investment in the last quarter of 2021, compared to the projected numbers had we not left the EU. Britain is also suffering more from post-Covid recovery and inflation pressures than our neighbors.
Brexit has had a major negative impact on UK commerce, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility, which saw a 15% decrease in “trade intensity” in November. When Europeans see all of that, they often say, “But for God’s grace, there.” Being a lesson-learned example is our major contribution to the European project.
The postwar US secretary of state Dean Acheson famously declared, “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role.” We have a role now, so that’s good. We serve as a helpful cautionary tale. If the EU ever makes the nations of Europe unhappy, they just need to look across the Channel—and pause.
Recall that the reduction of red tape was one of the Brexiters’ main and most frequently used arguments. Nigel Farage was furious with David Cameron more than ten years ago for having the audacity to discuss deregulation to aid businesses, asking, “How can he talk about removing red tape but not the EU regs which produce it?”
Farage claimed that being a member of the EU was to blame for the bureaucracy that was choking up British businesses. What is the loudest, most vehement objection you hear from British merchants seeking to sell their goods into their nearest markets, over the Channel, though, now that we’re out? It’s the endless hours spent dealing with bureaucracy—customs forms, holdups, and double-charging VAT forced on customers at the other end—caused, according to Farage’s assertion, by not being a member of the EU.
It is not surprising that, according to a Best for Britain survey, 57% of Britons now believe that Brexit has caused more difficulties than it has resolved, with only 10% believing the opposite. More Conservative voters than those with a more upbeat outlook on Brexit.
There is abundant proof that Brexit is a problem-maker. Consider the government’s proposal to burn all 4,000 or so pieces of EU law that are still included in UK statute books by the end of the year. Last week, peers issued a warning that the mass repeal of legislation would be both hazardous and procedurally nearly impossible. If the rules are simply repealed, a wide array of crucial, even life-saving protections will be lost, whether they pertain to electrical safety, food standards, or water purity. It would be the biggest waste of time in the history of parliament if they were just copied and pasted into new legislation, free from any connection to the dreaded EU. If the laws are changed without sufficient time for legislative review, as the senior That is hardly what most people understand by “taking back power,” as Tory peer Robin Hodgson puts it. In other words, just like Brexit itself, repealing EU laws looks simple in theory but is a headache in actuality.
Northern Ireland is the place where the disconnect between Brexit rhetoric and practice is most obvious. The leavers casually dismissed worries about what seemed to the reality-based community to be an insurmountable issue: where would a border between the EU and the UK that had opted to leave the customs union to lie given that there would always need to be a border? Without endangering the Good Friday Agreement, it could not be between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Unionists, who want eliminating all distinctions between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, would undoubtedly become enraged if it were to proceed beyond the Irish Sea. Where then?
A protocol that was meant to be the answer infuriated unionists because it made the very distinction they detested. To appease them, the government put up a bill that would, very definitely illegally, overrule certain provisions of the internationally recognized protocol. Now, there is talk of banishing that bill to the same obscurity as its original author, Liz Truss. According to one analyst, “the UK is constructing and operating an international trade border within its own country”—a border that wasn’t there before—as a result of legislation that will see border posts built at Northern Irish ports. Another issue brought about by Brexit rather than solved.
Everything here is visible. Because of this, Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, is undoubtedly correct in his plea this week for the Westminster omertà on Brexit to be withdrawn and for us to begin having open and sincere discussions about it.
The official stance of Labour is that the matter is resolved and that Khan’s “pragmatic argument” regarding the advantages of rejoining the single market and customs union is inadmissible. The political reasoning is straightforward: Labour should avoid taking any actions that could splinter its electoral coalition because Brexit voters dislike being told they were mistaken. But a counterargument is becoming more compelling by the day. A party in opposition, let alone the administration, must discuss a factor in our national life that is clearly and currently harming our economy and politics. Our neighbors are able to clearly see it. They have seen the harm caused by Brexit and come to an obvious conclusion. It’s high time we followed suit.