The most dangerous moment for any utopia is when it becomes reality. What world is Brexit about to be sprung into, with or without a deal? Here is where the main interested parties stand.
• Most Britons now think Brexit is a bad idea. In dozens of polls by YouGov from February 2018, majorities in almost every one said Britain was wrong to vote to leave. That looks like a robust consensus, whatever one’s reservations about polling.
But Britons were switching off from Brexit even before the pandemic captured all attention. Boris Johnson — with a large parliamentary majority and four years until the next election — could have prepared people for hard choices, saying that sovereignty was worth sacrifices. He hasn’t. Ministers avoid mentioning Brexit whenever possible.
This suggests most Britons will get angry when Brexit destroys jobs, reduces their personal access to Europe and raises food prices. (The UK imports about 80 per cent of its food, counting raw ingredients as well as packaged products, estimates HSBC.) Even a trade deal with the EU would hurt. With customs barriers in the Irish Sea, “the United Kingdom has actually ended up with a free trade area smaller than the United Kingdom”, writes legal commentator David Allen Green.
The coming pain will surprise many hard Leavers, whose newspapers and Brexiter bubbles have spent years denying that Brexit entails trade-offs.
• Britain’s shrinking immigrant population could shrink further. Ian Stewart, economist at Deloitte, has said the foreign-born workforce fell by over 700,000 in a year during the pandemic. He thinks net immigration may have turned negative in 2020 for the first time since the mid-1990s.
The government will probably keep recruiting foreign healthcare workers. But when hotels and restaurants reopen, the UK doesn’t plan to readmit low-wage European workers. Either it finds British staff or those industries will shrink. Meanwhile, UK universities are likely to have fewer applications from European students once the latter’s fees rise from 2021. We’re about to test a core proposition of the Brexit referendum: that Britain has too many immigrants.
• Northern Ireland may join Scotland’s struggle to leave the Union. Scottish polls now show consistent majorities for independence. In Northern Ireland, next year’s census should confirm continued shrinking of the historically Unionist Protestant population. Meanwhile, Brexit will help integrate the two Irish economies: for instance, Northern Irish supermarkets will find it easier to source food from Ireland than from mainland Britain.
These twin pushes for independence probably won’t succeed any time soon, but could polarise Scots and inflame Northern Ireland’s divides. The UK has two new frozen conflicts.
• Joe Biden’s US is unsympathetic to Brexit. Johnson suggested in 2016 that Barack Obama’s Kenyan roots gave him an “ancestral dislike” of Britain. Biden really does have an ancestral dislike. A self-identified “Irishman”, he grew up on bedtime stories from an aunt about British irregulars who fought to prevent Ireland becoming independent. “Now you remember, Joey, about the Black and Tans, don’t you?”
Nor will Biden’s Democrats grant the lucrative US trade deal Brexiters fantasised about in the Trump era. This deal was never going to be a pot of gold, but now Brexiters can’t even pretend it will be. Biden will also favour Paris and Berlin as interlocutors over London, less useful now it has lost its influence in Brussels.
• The EU has found in Brexit almost the only thing that unites its member-states, says Brigid Laffan of the European University Institute in Florence. All 27 have prioritised their bilateral relations and the single market over their relationship with a third party. China and Russia regularly peel off individual EU countries on to their side; the UK hasn’t. Lonely in its own backyard, Britain refuses even to take joint stances with the EU on foreign policy.
• In its dealings with China, Britain misjudges its own strengths, argues Rana Mitter, professor of Chinese history at the University of Oxford. He says Beijing doesn’t listen much to complaints from London (or anyone else) about its crackdown on Hong Kong. Nor is China very worried whether Britain sends an aircraft carrier to the eastern Pacific. Mitter says Beijing puts the UK in the third tier of importance to China, behind the US in tier one and Japan, India and the EU (as well as Germany on its own) in tier two.
The British assets China cares about most, he notes, are ones damaged by internal divisions over Brexit: universities, media and legal services. Any Confucian society values higher education, and British universities are aspirational destinations for Chinese middle-class families. The BBC’s international voice irks Beijing, but the UK government has diminished the broadcaster’s credibility by politicising it. And the UK’s recent flirtation with breaching international law diminishes Chinese respect for British contracts and arbitration.
• Criminals are among the rare beneficiaries of Brexit. British police use various EU databases and alerting systems millions of times a year. That access is set to cease on January 1, when Britain will also be shut out of the European arrest warrant. Peter Ricketts, former UK national security adviser, says: “Frankly, we are all less safe.”
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