Brexit Day

03.02.20 Publication:

Welcome to the great Brexit anti-climax. It was postponed twice last year, Britain went into
a kind of political nervous breakdown over it, then held a general election over it, and finally
the third deadline of January 31 st has passed and this time United Kingdom has formally left
the European Union. Yet now Boris Johnson’s government wants Britons to forget that
anything has really happened. It wants people to stop talking about Brexit. It wants to make
Brexit banal.

In fact, of course, very little has changed, in the short term. Britain has lost its votes
and voice in European Union institutions, and the European Parliament has at last got rid of
Nigel Farage, but the country remains in the European single market and customs union and
subject to all its laws for a further 11 months, during which a long-term trade and regulatory
agreement is supposed to be negotiated. So the immediate change is indeed quite banal.

Yet the irony is that it is now in Prime Minister Johnson’s political interests to keep
Brexit feeling banal, perhaps permanently. Having made a lot of noise during the past three
years about how important and exciting it would all be, Johnson is now marking Britain’s
departure in a very quiet way. He has ordered government ministries to stop explaining to
the public that Britain remains in a transition period, and he has told his cabinet colleagues
to mention Brexit as little as possible.

The reason is simple: he does not want to have to fight the next general election, in
2023 or 2024, over whether or not Brexit was a good or bad idea. He would prefer all
consideration of Brexit to be vastly overshadowed by attention to his government’s other
policies, such as building new infrastructure, improving the National Health Service or
restoring the strength of Britain’s military. Most of all, he wants his economic record to look
good, a hope that would be endangered if businesses spend even more time worrying about
the terms on which they can trade with the EU and so delay their investments.

In a speech next week, the prime minister is reported to be planning to declare that
Britain is going to diverge from many EU rules, so much so that there will have to be new
border checks at British ports and airports. But in practice, as the negotiations get under
way, he is unlikely to take an aggressive, confrontational position on this, for fear it will
cause fresh uncertainty for business.

In fact, given that it is widely considered to be impossible for a full free trade
agreement to be negotiated in just 11 months, Britain’s main objective will be to achieve a
minimal, outline agreement so as to then defer sector-by-sector agreements until later.
Providing the EU agrees, this can be done under Article 24 of the General Agreement on
Tariffs and Trade, which is the founding document of the World Trade Organisation. In
effect, this would allow the UK and the EU to agree upon tariff-free trade between each
other while they negotiate the full free trade agreement over a longer period.

It would in practice mean an extension to the 11 month extension, at least for all
sectors not resolved by then. The advantage of this would be that rather than focusing
attention on a single big agreement, which could become controversial, attention would
become diffused across an array of negotiations, over a number of years. It would all
become simply a technical matter, for the specialists to cope with, rather like the array of                                agreements that Switzerland has with the EU. It wouldn’t necessarily be easy, and probably
won’t be. But the aim would be to make the issue far less central to British politics.

The underlying reality has already been shown by some of Prime Minister Johnson’s
early decisions. Instead of pulling away from Europe and moving closer to the United States,
as has often been predicted, he has actually stayed quite closely aligned with European
positions on Iran and on the use of Huawai telecoms equipment in new 5G networks, and
while his government’s response to Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan this week was
somewhat warmer than that of Germany, it remained carefully circumspect. If Trump is re-
elected in November, Johnson’s calculations might be forced to change. But for the time
being, he seems disinclined to sail Britain off into the Atlantic, away from Europe.

The case for and against Brexit never depended on any rich available rewards from
departure or on any genuine burdens of remaining a member: it was never a matter of
choosing between extremes. The real issue was always symbolic and strategic: whether
Britain thought it desirable to feel and seem separate, or whether it needed to retain an
influence over what happens in the continent to which it and its interests are irrevocably

For that reason, Brexit does not need to feel dramatic. Its effects, both economic
and political, will emerge only gradually, over many years, and will depend on a huge
number of other policies and factors. Right now, Brexit really does feel banal, though it is
also sad to see it and to feel its new banality.

Image by Reimund Bertrams from Pixabay