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Boris Johnson’s Brexit victory was a landslide victory

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To the winner, the bang. Boris Johnson won the referendum on membership of the United Kingdom in the EU, just over five years ago, won the victory of the Conservative Party in July 2019, has reached an agreement with the EU in October and won a decisive victory under the first UK mail system in the December general election. He rebuilt his country. But did he redo it for the better or for the worse? Has the opportunity increased for the British, or decreased? Has it made the UK more influential and prosperous, or less so? My answer to all of these questions is, “the last one.” But I admit that are also the early days in this story.

One point that emerges quickly (and without the surprise of an informed person) is that the Brexiters had misunderstood the EU. Anand Menon of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative at King’s College note which Dominic Raab (now foreign secretary) said in April 2016 that “we can have proper control of our borders, but we don’t need to be bound by all this stubborn regulation… and it’s certainly not in the Europeans’ interest to erect barriers to trade.” The EU does not agree. Many barriers exist now: they will remain.

The reason for this predictable outcome was that members considered the preservation of the EU legal order, including the single market, as a primary interest. This is clear from “EU-UK 2030”, a card of the same unit. Think of Denmark, for example, for which the UK is both a good friend and its fourth largest trading partner. But Denmark does more than six times more activity with the rest of the EU than with the United Kingdom. Self-economic interest meant preserving the EU market, without accepting the UK. The same is true for other members. The EU always comes first for everyone.

As Menon also remarks, sardonic: “It was curious that a group of ideological purists expected their interlocutors to be ideologically flexible and pragmatic.” It is clear that until Brexit it strengthened the EU, not weakened it. Menon notes that “Even Marine Le Pen soon realized that Brexit would do nothing to increase public support for Frexit.” Therefore, EU members have struggled to defend their interests, as British politicians should have expected.

Chart showing the unbalanced dependence of the UK and EU on each other’s markets

Johnson’s “cakeism“It was a stupid feat, like the view of David Frost, its chief negotiator, that the EU should” shake off any remaining malice towards us for departure, and instead build a friendly relationship between equal sovereigns. ” , it would be easier to achieve this if Johnson had not lied about the implications of his agreement above trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK and even dared to try a repudiation of this. The EU rightly considers it to be unserious and unreliable.

As for “sovereign equality”, the UK and the EU can be equally sovereign, formally. But they are far from equal. The UK economy is one-fifth of the EU and its dependence on trade with the EU is much greater than otherwise. These are the realities of relative power. A realist, like Victorian Prime Minister Palmerston, would have understood this. Why can’t Frost?

The graph showing the UK economy has had five hard years since the EU referendum

It is inevitable, especially in view of the UK government’s apparent desire for friction with the EU, that relations will remain poisonous for the indefinite future. It is also inevitable that the UK will lose more from this than the EU.

And the economic results? Brexit is certainly not the only shock that has hit the economy in the last five years. The other is Covid-19. But it is worth noting that between the second quarter of 2016 and the first quarter of 2021, the UK economy has fallen by 4.3 per cent. Italy’s performance was similar. But the eurozone economy grew by 1.3 percent over this period. Brexit has also done a big initial shock to trading volumes. A recovery has happened since then, however UK trade will end up smaller which would not have been otherwise. The effects of this will accumulate over time and will present worse economic benefits than otherwise.

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This begs the question: what does it mean to “take back control”?

The chart showing Brexit in January 2021 has been a strong shock for British trade, but there has been some recovery

There is no doubt that Brexit has lifted restrictions on the government. British prime ministers with a large majority could still do most of what they want, as long as they maintain parliamentary support. Now the government should not worry about EU rules either. Therefore, the government (for which 44 percent of the electorate voted) can act even more freely than before. This form of collective control can mean a lot to many. However, in the numerous fields where international cooperation is needed, Brexit has not increased control over choices. The UK must always convince other countries. But now it lacks a platform in the European Union from which to do so.

And the British? Have they regained control of their lives? At least, companies that trade with the EU and people who want to work and study have lost a lot of control, not regained it.

The graph showing immigration from the EU has fallen but has risen elsewhere

We may not know what posterity will think. But for me today the promises of Brexit seem to me largely a will. It will not increase control, but reduce it where it matters most to individuals and also to the general public. Skilled demagogues transmuted public unhappiness into hostility towards the EU, which was mostly innocent of what people hated, except for migration. UK statistics are very poor on this: the number of EU citizens seeking “established status” has been revealed 5.3 m from March 2021, much more than expected. But, surprisingly, the influx of migrants from the rest of the world has now jumped, just as those in the EU have refused.

In the long run, Brexit will hurt the UK, perhaps divide it, while also strengthening EU solidarity. If so, he will surely be judged a Pyrrhic victory.

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Follow Martin Wolf with myFT and also Twitter




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