A.When Brexiteers and Remainers cast their votes in the EU referendum on June 23, 2016, extreme forecasts clashed. While the Friends of the European Union warned of a “catastrophe” for the United Kingdom, the opponents of the integration project promised a “global Britain” which, “freed from the shackles of the EU”, would develop even more splendidly.
An interim balance after the first five years should probably come to the conclusion that both sides applied a bit thick.
The phase leading up to an exit agreement was particularly chaotic. For three and a half years, the dispute over the implementation of the referendum plunged deeply torn British society from one crisis to the next, swept governments away and brought the venerable Westminster system to the brink of functioning.
Brexit and Corona consequences mixed up
Since Johnson’s election victory in December 2019, the country has calmed down politically, but has fallen into the clutches of the corona pandemic. This makes it difficult to consider the economic consequences of Brexit in particular, because both phenomena are mixed up.
It is undisputed that Brexit has damaged the UK export economy. In Germany alone, the United Kingdom has fallen from third to sixth place as the most important trading partner. It is unclear whether the slump is permanent or can be compensated for by the effect of new free trade agreements (the first with Australia has just been concluded).
Also Europe’s second largest economy
But one cannot speak of a catastrophe. The growth forecasts are good, the currency is stable, the City of London remained by far the largest financial center in Europe, and the now “sovereign” kingdom maintained its position as the second largest European economy.
The British government bears a little more weight in the political fallout. At the G-7 summit, Boris Johnson presented himself as the host who, in close collaboration with American President Joe Biden, can launch new initiatives. The considerable investments in the national military apparatus and the strategic leaning on the United States allow the nuclear power and the UN Security Council member Great Britain to continue to emerge as a leading country on the stage of international security policy. At the same time, however, it has become clear how much the Brexit has strained, even poisoned, relations with the EU, especially with France.
The uncomfortable situation in Northern Ireland, where London has refused to fulfill its obligations under the Withdrawal Agreement for months, not only increases distrust on the continent. It also radiates negatively inwards. The centrifugal forces on the edges of the kingdom have grown ominously.
Legalistic stance in Brussels
The attitude of London and Brexit itself are primarily responsible for this. However, even British EU friends point out with concern that Brussels and other European capitals with their rigid, legalistic stance in the post-Brexit negotiations are not exactly helping to defuse the problems.
Johnson’s promise to ride into the morning sun when leaving the EU is accompanied by many shadows. The drifting apart of the British Union, especially Scottish separatism, will keep the government busy for years and tie up a lot of political energy. The frictions in the trade relations with the big neighbor could have been avoided with a different exit treaty.
The cultural disconnection from the continent, which is by no means limited to the termination of the Erasmus program, is now noticeable. The kingdom feels less European and again more like part of the “Anglosphere”. At some point even those Brexiteers who have a sense of historical ties and who by no means embrace America in all of its dimensions could regret this.
On the plus side, the British have more freedom of action. The successful vaccination campaign of the Johnson administration was even explained by the EU Commission President by saying that a “speedboat” sometimes has advantages over a “tanker”. The Johnson administration is now also allowed to experiment with aid packages (tailored to British interests), investment offensives and free ports without coming into conflict with a Brussels commissioner for competition.
Last but not least, London has made use of its new option to organize immigration according to its own needs. “Global Britain” is now – with (small) exceptions for refugees – only open to newcomers who can be shown to contribute to the economy.
How all the pros and cons of going it alone will develop in the long run will probably only be seen in a few years. So far it can be said that Brexit has not dragged the British into the abyss. But it also did not lead to imitators standing in line in the EU.