Brussels.— In the great bet made by the majority of the British to leave the UEuropean Union (EU) there have only been losers.
Six years after the referendum that shook the Old Continent with an unexpected result, the impacts are evident: economic setback, political polarization and estrangement between partners who were close allies for more than four decades.
That is the conclusion reached by experts consulted by THE UNIVERSAL about the evolution of the risky move made by a small group of British politicians who resorted to all kinds of tricks to materialize a political dream rooted in deep euroscepticism.
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The only note that some rescue as possibly positive in an experience in which there is no winner, is the fact that Brussels got rid of the partner seen as the most antagonistic to the EU. Traditionally, London was a thorn in the side of the European construction process.
“The UK has always been resistant to certain EU policies, and to some extent opposed to further integration. Now, without the United Kingdom as a member, the EU has been able to move forward in the face of the challenges presented after Brexit, as was the fact of agreeing for the first time the mutualization of debt in the face of the impacts of the Covid-19. Who knows what would have happened if they were still members?” says Emily Fitzpatrick, an analyst at the European Policy Centre.
Without being obliged to do so, out of sheer political ambition, then Prime Minister David Cameron promised to put EU membership to a referendum if he were re-elected.
On June 23, 2016, against all odds, 51.89% of Britons voted for abandonment. It was the result of the apathy of young people, who stayed at home, but above all, of a campaign marked by all kinds of incendiary rhetoric, deceit and unfounded promises by the biggest Eurosceptics, among others, the current Prime Minister Boris Johnson and retired politician Nigel Farage.
Among the long list of lies, it was said that there would be better salaries, as well as more money for the National Health System and other government programs, because allegedly 350 million pounds a week were sent to the EU, an amount that should now be left over in government coffers.
They were also insistent that the British kingdom would be more united and stronger outside the European bloc; in Scotland the possibility of a second independence referendum gains strength, while political tension increases in Northern Ireland due to the situation caused by Brexit.
There were also those who assured that outside the community club, on the other side of the English Channel, it would be safer from crime and terrorism.
Likewise, they lashed out demagogically with all kinds of grotesque accusations against the EU, before which the cabinet of Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission from 2014 to 2019, was passive, tolerant and silent.
“So far from Brexit from the moment of the referendum, the biggest impact, both for the UK and for Europe, has been negative,” says Camino Mortera-Martinez, head of the Brussels office of the Center for European Reform (CER). ).
“It is clear that Brexit is having a negative impact on trade and therefore on the British economy. Most economists think that over the next 10, 12 years, that impact will be negatively amplified,” says Anand Menon, director of the think tank UK in a Changing Europe.
“To be honest, for a large number of exit promoters, Brexit was political, not economic; it was to recover sovereignty, even when this implied an economic blow in the short and medium term”, continues the professor of European politics at King’s College London.
John Springford, deputy director of the CER, puts the first numbers to the cost of Brexit. For the last quarter of 2021, UK GDP was 5.2% lower than forecast, investment was 13.7% lower and merchandise trade was 13.6% lower.
He affirms that the poor economic performance of the United Kingdom in the pandemic may be part of the downward calculation of GDP, but the truth is that since the referendum, investment began to lag behind, as did trade in goods, from the moment in which which left the single market.
Regarding Europe, Camino assures that at the moment there are no estimates, although analysts agree that it inevitably generated a drop in economic indicators, as a consequence of losing part of the internal market and agreeing to a trade agreement of minimum unfavorable for both parties.
“It is still difficult to know what the specific consequences of Brexit have been, the pandemic greatly cushioned the effects,” says Camino.
For example, the implications for services, the star sector of the British economy and which was excluded from the agreement with the EU, are still unknown.
The British exit practically coincided with the arrival of Covid-19 and the introduction of a series of lockdowns from 2020; until just four months ago, there is a gradual opening of the borders, with which the mobility of lawyers, musicians, artists, among others, has begun to resume.
“The pandemic added another layer of uncertainty for European and British companies, but it also somewhat masked to some extent the ability to quantify the impact on the British economy (…) they have evaded responsibility. Now we have world inflation and the war in Ukraine [como pretexto]”, says Fitzpatrick.
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The withdrawal from the EU has additionally had significant implications for the kingdom’s own unity. In Northern Ireland the parties have been unable to form a government due to contentious issues generated by the post-Brexit agreement, while in Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that she plans to hold a second referendum on independence in October next year if her government obtains the necessary legal approval.
In political terms, Professor Menon explains, in the United Kingdom it generated a new type of political division: “Now it is not only divided between the right and the left, but also between those who wanted to stay and those who wanted to leave.
“As for the EU, it is clear that without the UK it is weaker in terms of its size, in terms of its diplomatic and military assets. But on the other hand, the EU has been able to act without the UK on issues like defense and Covid recovery, although it is hard to know what would have happened in the presence of the UK”, he adds.
But the odyssey is far from hitting rock bottom; there are a number of challenges ahead. The largest of these has to do with Northern Ireland, which was anchored to the single European market to avoid a physical border on the Island of Ireland for fear of reviving the ghosts of the past, but which in turn created a border between Belfast and the rest of United Kingdom.
Boris Johnson’s government has initiated proceedings to unilaterally alter the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol. The European Commission has expressed willingness to make adjustments, but refuses to renegotiate an international treaty that is already closed and binding.
There will also be tension over pending issues in areas such as energy, security, defense, foreign affairs and the regulatory framework, issues still to be decided after an express negotiation that lasted only 10 months and covered the most basic.
“Changes in the regulatory environment that lead to a departure from common market standards could lead to greater political tension,” Fitzpatrick anticipates.
“Current relations are very tense for many reasons; one of them because the British government thinks that having a certain degree of tension with the EU is politically beneficial, but also because of the issue of the Ireland Protocol”, says Menon.
Some scholars think that a new tenant at 9 Downing Street is required to begin patching up relations between London and Brussels. As long as Johnson remains in office, it will be difficult for him to start the long-awaited reconstruction.
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