Most analysts see Brexit as a classic ‘lose-lose’ situation, with purely negative effects for both the United Kingdom and the European Union. Not so Thierry Breton. “It is a loss for the UK, yes”, the European Commissioner for the Internal Market answers when asked. “But we have prepared well. We are in great shape!”
With a broad smile, the Frenchman walks through the port of Antwerp on Friday afternoon. The full gray head of hair – once compared by an EU official to Beethoven’s – peeks out here and there from under his white helmet.
In the week that the Brexit referendum (23 June 2016) took place exactly five years ago, Breton came to Antwerp with a message: Europe is united, strong and ready for the future.
The ‘anniversary’ passed almost silently this week on the European side. This can be seen as indicative: after years of continuous dispute with the British, EU countries were once again at loggerheads with each other this week about the Russia course and defending LGBTI rights.
Battery Brexit officials
That does not mean that the Brexit trauma in Brussels has already been fully processed. A battery of officials is still working on the consequences of the British departure. The quarrels with the UK continue, although just this week a dispute over the conditions for the transport of frozen meat to Northern Ireland was nipped in the bud.
And the economic consequences will continue to be felt for Europe, especially for small companies that are confronted with a considerable amount of paperwork.
But Breton wants to make it clear this week how it is for the British, who are in so much worse five years later. In an interview with The Guardian summed up the Frenchman this week how much Brexit has “weakened and isolated” the UK.
He pointed to the UK’s significant economic contraction in 2020 of 9.9 percent, which even contrasts painfully with those in France (8.3 percent) and Italy (8.9 percent).
These are figures that have appeared more often in retrospect this week. Bloomberg bet an analysis the UK’s economic situation against that of other EU countries. While trade between the UK and the EU has contracted by 21 percent since 2018, that of Ireland and Denmark grew by 24 and 5 percent respectively. British trade with the rest of the world also shrank by 8 percent. “Brexit means ‘no gain’ and above all a lot of ‘pain’”, according to the conclusion.
It is what is also like to be emphasized on the EU side. At the same time, the honest story is also that the Brexit has actually only been a reality for six months, the pandemic is clouding the figures and it is therefore still early to draw up the balance. “Brexit, like EU membership, is a long-term decision, so you have to assess its impact in that time frame too,” wrote analyst Wolfgang Münchau this week.
In Antwerp, Breton boarded a helicopter to view the entire port area from above. Instead of contracting, the port has succeeded in increasing trade in recent years, including towards the UK. “You see: we started anticipating four years ago,” says the Frenchman. “In the UK they are just starting to do that.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 26 June 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of June 26, 2021