For our weekly ‘Ideas on Europe’ editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we welcome Luca Augé, PhD Candidate at the Centre for Research on the English-Speaking World at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, in Paris.
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“Brexit is done” – that’s what Boris Johnson declared when the trade deal with the EU was signed over two years ago already. Where do things stand today?
Two years after the end of the Brexit process, the situation in the UK actually looks quite bleak. The UK has the lowest trade share of GDP of the G7 countries, one of the highest inflation rates in the OECD and is set to have the lowest GDP growth rate of industrialised countries in 2023 just after Russia.
Since Summer 2022, nurses, doctors, firemen, teachers, postal services, airports, trains, buses and the London Underground have all organised strikes. Most of them ask for a pay rise and protest against their working conditions.
But is it possible to find out whether Brexit is responsible for this situation?
Difficult. Covid-19 overlapped with the end of the Brexit process, so it has not been easy to distinguish the effects of each of these events. However, since the Covid-19 crisis has now ended, it is possible to identify the Brexit-specific factors.
To start with, the Bank of England made Brexit responsible for disturbing supply chains and weakening the competitiveness of UK businesses. Moreover, research has shown that Brexit, in putting an end to the free movement of people, has created a shortage of more than 300,000 workers, especially in transport and the food sector.
It is also interesting to compare the situation between Northern Ireland, who thanks to its special ‘Protocol’ remained part of the Single Market, and the rest of the UK. It turns out that in the third quarter of 2021, Northern Ireland was the most dynamic UK region just after London.
This shows that Brexit may have been completed in 2020, but its economic impact is ongoing and hitting the UK hard in times of the war in Ukraine and the wider energy crisis.
In 2016, 52% of the British voted to leave the EU. How does the British public see things today?
Polls have shown that a majority of people now thinks that Brexit was a bad idea. Even around 20% of ‘Leave’ voters in 2016 agree that Brexit wasn’t a good decision. This is an interesting development as even some of the Brexit supporters agree with the wider public that Brexit has been damaging for the UK.
More generally, 63% believe that the UK government is directly responsible for the current Brexit impact. That’s a serious problem for the Conservative Party, which has been in power for over a decade and suffers an increasing lack of credibility, also due to the ongoing series of scandals under Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and now Rishi Sunak.
These polls lead several newspapers in the UK to talk about ‘Bregret’, short for ‘Brexit regret’, just as ‘Brexit’ was the fusion of ‘Britain’ and ‘exit’. There is clearly a mood of disappointment with the many promises made around Brexit and its contribution to the current socio-economic situation.
If something like ‘Bregret’ is happening, does this mean that there is appetite for rejoining the EU?
That is actually the main sticking point. The two main parties in the UK rarely even talk about Brexit anymore. The Conservative government under Rishi Sunak has no plans to change the current Brexit terms and the Labour Party led by Keir Starmer repeatedly confirmed that Brexit would not be reversed.
Clearly, the chaotic and divisive Brexit process made the issue almost a taboo with a high political cost for anyone willing to address it. The next General Election is planned for the end of 2024 and at the moment it doesn’t look like Brexit will be a central theme of the campaign.
Even amongst the British public, there is no clear opinion on either to stick with Brexit or rejoin the EU, with similar poll figures as for the 2016 referendum. People instead focus on the economy and the National Health Service as the most pressing issues, rather than Brexit.
With a political spectrum unwilling to open the Brexit box and a public without a clear opinion, rejoining the EU is definitely not on the agenda for some time to come.