Foreign Affairs

The Bad Breakup Song of Brexit

Don’t smile because it’s over, cry because it happened.

On Christmas Eve, following nine months of bitter negotiations, Prime Minister Boris Johnson gleefully presented his Christmas gift to the UK: a post-Brexit trade agreement. Johnson’s announcement of an “oven-ready deal” was received with varying degrees of relief and cynicism. Days earlier, morose Britons had been placed under new lockdown measures to try and curb a highly new infectious strain of the coronavirus. Johnson had previously promised five-day festive ‘bubble’ plans, described Christmas infringements as “inhuman” and attacked the opposition leader for wanting harsher restrictions. Johnson’s drastic U-turn towards tougher rules was mocked by the press, which scathingly pointed out that he was the first British leader to ban Christmas since Oliver Cromwell in 1644. Brits mourned their cancelled holidays with memes of the Prime Minister as the Grinch who stole Christmas that rapidly circulated social media.

On December 25th, the Queen’s annual address topped TV ratings as 8.14 million households tuned in (closely followed by the 5.4 million Call the Midwife viewers). While there are no official figures on how many Brits took up the Prime Minister’s 1250 page reading recommendation for “that sleepy post-Christmas lunch moment,” Brexit fatigue and general irritability undermined public enthusiasm about Johnson’s “gift to the nation.”

After a 47-year relationship, the split between the EU and the UK became a reality on 1 January 2021. Four and a half years have passed since Britain’s EU referendum on 23 June 2016 when 51.9% of the UK voted to leave the EU. It was a glorious day for some. Long-term Euroskeptic and UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage, who was a prominent figure in the Brexit campaign, declared an “independence day” and chanted the campaign slogan: “take back control.” For others, it was a day of mourning and finger-pointing. Cameron tendered his resignation in an emotional speech outside 10 Downing Street in which he called for “fresh leadership.” The flurry of Google searches about the EU testifIes to the reigning uncertainty in the minds of Britons. Alarmingly, the UK’s second most Googled question immediately following Brexit was “what is the EU?” The single most Googled question, however, has sustained its relevance up until the present: “what does it mean to leave the EU?”

Regardless of perspective, the British public rejected the establishment and took a plunge into the political unknown, a move which simultaneously catapulted the pound sterling off a cliff. Daunted by uncertainty, skittish investors plummeted the UK’s FTSE 100 index. As predicted by economic forecasts, UK GDP growth markedly decelerated amid a backdrop of low business sentiment, a significantly weaker currency and a deteriorated outlook for the labor market.

For many Bremainers (otherwise known as ‘Bremoaners’), the decision to leave the EU triggered emotions that correspond to the classic five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Technically known as the Kübler-Ross model, research by data analytics firm YouGov has demonstrated the slowness with which the British political class came to terms with the decision. Nearly five months after the referendum, student protests erupted around the UK against the outcome, and 32% of Remain voters denied that people really wanted to leave. Next came anger at David Cameron, Boris Johnson, and the British public at large. Calls for a ‘soft Brexit’ indicated the beginnings of a bargaining stage. For many Bremainers, the reality of the situation has given way to a kind of depression, and acceptance is still a work in progress.

Moving at varying paces through the five stages of Brexit grief, many Remainers feel as if they have watched their parents come out the other side of a messy divorce. Ardent Brexiteers are jubilant. Most Brits are just thankful that they seem to be nearing the end of the tunnel and are cautiously optimistic, clinging onto anything reminiscent of good news after the hardships of 2020. A messy divorce settlement where one child is relieved by the split, while the other felt it was so much better when the family was all together feels like an appropriate analogy for Brexit.

Commentators have sought to explain the referendum’s outcome by citing short-term contingencies and concerns. Potential factors include a demagogic Leave campaign, irrational xenophobia, simple racism, an obstinate protest vote, the government’s fiscal austerity policies, a Eurosceptic press or general economic discontent. 

However, a short-term outlook is insufficient: Eurosceptic undercurrents long pre-date David Cameron’s announcement of an EU referendum in January 2013. Motivation behind Britain’s delayed 1963 application for entry was primarily economic — to escape the European Economic Community’s (EEC) external tariff against British goods by joining a more dynamic free trade area. It maintained a semi-detached status, emphasized by the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 under which John Major obtained an exemption from the required adoption of the euro. The UK is ranked 28 out of 28 for European identity; nearly two-thirds of Britons do not identify as European at all. Geographic, economic and cultural separatism established Britain to be the least integrated EU member state. In short: the UK has always felt like an outsider.

Brexit illuminated pre-existing divides along economic, educational and social lines. Brexit was opposed by majorities in Scotland, Northern Ireland, London and other cities, as well as by most young people and most graduates. Britain is still a country divided over Europe. Yet as the disunity between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland continues to grow, the EU can no longer be blamed for continuing tensions, inequalities and failures of governance.  

It is tempting for Americans to sympathize with British appeals to national sovereignty. US pundits were quick to connect 2016, the year of the Brexit referendum, with 1776, the year the Declaration of Independence was signed. Historians have drawn parallels between the economic woes, xenophobia and desire for sovereignty common to both breaks for independence. Yet the fantasies of greatness that fostered Brexit are dangerous for the UK. For the small UK islands, Brexit is the sacrifice of prosperity for sovereignty. As Theresa May warned, sovereignty must not be confused with isolationism or exceptionalism. The sun has long set on the British Empire.

Over the past four years, significant obstacles obstructed the path to an amicable separation. The UK has endured a revolving door of Conservative leaders, ‘No Deal’ threats, the tricky Irish backstop, Conservative loss of Parliamentary majority, a general election and a pandemic that eclipsed Johnson’s mission to “get Brexit done.” 

Both Labour and Conservative Parties have adopted forward-looking attitudes and seem to have reached a moderate degree of bipartisanship, despite the Labour Party’s unrelenting criticism of Johnson’s handling of the pandemic. Labour leader Keir Starmer, a staunch Bremainer, whipped Labour MPs to vote in favour of Johnson’s deal. The post-Brexit free trade agreement (FTA)  was backed in the House of Commons by 521 to 73 votes

New Year’s Day brought a sigh of relief to many Britons. However, Brexit is far from resolved. Ahead, intense scrutiny must be paid to new immigration controls, the maintenance of regulatory alignment, the status of service industries, fishing, access to databases, defence cooperation and the place of Northern Ireland within the deal.

Following the Tory landslide last year, Johnson urged both sides of an “increasingly arid” argument to find closure and “let the healing begin.” In order to do so, leaders and citizens alike must address the deeper roots of division; the Brexit divide is merely symptomatic. Yet with calls for independence from nationalist parties in Scotland (the Scottish National Party), Ireland (Sinn Fein) and Wales (Plaid Cymru) ever increasing in volume, Britain may yet splinter under the weight of Brexit.

Categories: Foreign Affairs

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1 reply »

  1. Excellent and succinct analysis of a strained relationship that has persisted for many decades. The coming months and years, especially with the COVID challenge, will be telling about how the two sides (UK and EU) can work together, and essentially, which model is more “fit for purpose”. The jury is still out. Or as the British like to say, “the proof [will be] in the pudding.”


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