There was never a yardstick by which to judge
the policy – so the issue will never be entirely settled
It is two weeks since Britain finally cut its ties with the European Union. It may
therefore seem a bit premature to ask how it is all going. But the reality of
Brexit in early 2021 is stark. We may now be a sovereign nation – which matters
a lot to many – but in almost every material respect the UK is currently worse
off than before 1 January.
Whatever else this tells us, it is a reminder that Brexit is not yet
done. Great Britain remains an island off the coast of the EU, which is its
major market. This requires policy and action from politicians and parties. Brexit is a stage
in that process. But the process goes on, and Brexit still
shapes it. Consider four live examples, on all of which parliament heard
First, there is the mountain of paperwork freshly involved
in trading across the Channel and into the EU. The Food and Drink Federation’s
Ian Wright told MPs on the Brexit committee today that a job that typically
took three hours before Brexit is now taking five days, even for big companies.
The customs enforcers were currently as much in the dark about the rules as the
exporters, he added.
Second, there is the specific effect of all this on the
emotive issue of fish
and seafood exports, over which the Scottish national party berated Boris
Johnson at this week’s prime minister’s questions. Scotland Food and Drink
warned on Tuesday that seafood exporters were losing
£1m in sales every day.
Third, there is a separate specific crisis in food
distribution between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This week the big UK
supermarkets warned of long-term
shortages in Northern Ireland supermarkets. Andrew Opie of the British
Retail Consortium told the Brexit committee today they would
get worse when Brexit grace periods end, on 31 March.
Finally, there is the ending of full police and security
cooperation between the UK and the EU. In a separate session today, Prof Gemma
Davies of Northumbria University told the Northern Ireland affairs committee
that Brexit amounted to an overall “security
downgrade” compared with the years of EU membership, and highlighted the
loss of access to real-time data as a major problem.
All the committee witnesses were clear that this deal,
whatever its problems, was better than no deal. It may also turn out that their
concerns prove to be Brexit teething problems. The lateness of the 24 December
deal certainly posed massive challenges. As the new rules begin to bed in, it
is also likely that all sides will find workaround solutions.
Yet this would still be a highly optimistic way of looking
at the problems facing the more than 50,000 UK manufacturers whose only trade
is with the EU. And while workarounds are to be welcomed, they are inferior to
the free passage of the past, and they must ultimately be compatible with law
and regulation on both sides. This is another fragile area of the agreement,
yet to be tested.
The emotional importance of Brexit should never be
underestimated. Support for it will always depend more upon feelings than
realities. Yet the plain fact is that there has been no material Brexit
dividend of any kind in the first two weeks of the break. Perhaps that does not
matter. Perhaps a dividend will come. But perhaps the EU has also succeeded in
showing there are real costs to leaving.
The current reality is nevertheless that each of the
material problems seems likely to grow more acute. That is true for
distribution chains in particular. According to Wright, all EU-UK supply chains
will have to be re-engineered over the coming months. The economic and
employment implications of this statement are huge, especially amid the
pandemic. The impact on fishing will be especially politically sensitive. And
no one pretends that the medium-term future for Northern Ireland
after Brexit is anything other than delicate.
But the uncertainty extends deep into other areas of the
economy and society too. Since London can no longer be the financial centre of
the EU, UK financial services seem
doomed to decline in importance. So does the attractiveness of UK
universities to students and researchers. The arts industries are vulnerable
too, as Simon
Rattle’s return to Germany underlines. Lockdowns and travel restrictions
mean there is currently less attention to post-Brexit tourism problems, but
these will unquestionably revive.
The Conservatives and Labour each have a shared interest in
treating Brexit as done. Johnson wants to tout it as his passport to history,
especially amid his Covid failures. Keir Starmer can see no route to a Labour
majority (or party unity) from reopening the European issue. This week he tried
to close the file on freedom
of movement as part of that. This may be understandable from the point of
view of electoral self-interest – but that does not mean the party interest is
the same as the public interest.
Material issues over commerce, trade and jobs thrown up by
Brexit cannot be ignored just because to talk of why they are occurring may
reopen the deep and disturbing divisions of the past decade. Nor can there be a
code of silence over the umbilical link between Brexit and issues such as the
potential breakup of the UK or the decline in Britain’s standing in the world.
These are real and growing dangers to Britain, and thus even to Brexit itself.
The feeling that Brexit was based on – that Britain and the
British were being done down by the EU – lay behind its enormous political
success at home. But beyond leaving the EU, Brexit never amounted to a
programme of change. There was no yardstick other than departure by which to
judge the policy.
This simplicity remains both the strength and weakness of
Brexit. It means all the areas that were left blank before and after 2016 will
now need to be filled in. In practice, this mostly means working with the EU
rather than competing against it, whether in trade or foreign policy generally.
The head of the foreign affairs thinktank Chatham House, Robin Niblett, wrote
this week that Britain will fail after Brexit if it tries to recreate itself as
mini great power”. The former cabinet minister David Lidington has said he
sees the prospect, over time, of various forms of “association
agreement” between Britain and the EU.
None of this is to say that a British return to the EU is
remotely on the cards any time soon. But, as time passes, the grip exerted by
the votes of 2016 and 2019 will weaken. Britain’s multiple living relationships
with Europe, meanwhile, will not go away. Decisions will have to be taken.
Things will have to evolve. In one form or another, what we now call Brexit
will never be an entirely settled issue. We would be deceiving ourselves to
treat it as one. Last modified on Thu 14 Jan 2021
*Martin Kettle is a Guardian associate editor