Brexit — a done deal into the wilderness

A deal has been finalised — Britain has left the EU on considerably worse terms than it had before its departure despite the spin of victory, sovereignty and independence that will be claimed by Boris Johnson. He proclaims to have resolved ‘question that has bedevilled politics for decades’, but this is a palpable lie. The issue has troubled the Conservative Party for a decade at best, with David Cameron acquiescing to a referendum to appease what John Major had called ‘the bastards’ who were always agitating to leave. Cameron believed he was going to triumph, but when Leave won, and under dubious circumstances, he walked into the political sunset. Theresa May could not placate the 80 or so members of the inaptly entitled European Research Group, a right-wing libertarian movement within a party increasingly shifting to the right, and she too fell on her sword when she tried to steer a path between remainers and leavers. Boris Johnson promised and spun his way to a deal at the eleventh hour, one that parliamentarians have no choice but to accept. Yet they do not have time to fully scrutinise it before the absolute deadline of the withdrawal negotiation period on 1 January. A timing that suits Boris Johnson not the people of Britain.

The motivations to leave the EU have always been less about the economy and more about the idea of identity, for the long term vision once the initial shocks of leaving are endured is for Britain to look beyond its closest neighbours in search of untapped markets in Asia and America. Britain wants to be freed from the shackles of EU regulation and administration to be great again, but there is more than a whiff of authoritarian nationalism behind these sentiments. It has made palatable the idea of disconnection with a greater Europe because it was encroaching on the sovereign powers of the UK, especially for the very few who wanted to part company with the EU but sold it to a largely uninformed or insular public as a question of national identity and pride. But separation from the EU by one of the primary members of the largest trading bloc in the world would always favour those who remain in the club, and this is the outcome today no matter what is now being told to the British public.

Many argue that Brexit benefits the very rich in Britain while continuing to ‘leave behind’ the ordinary working man and women. There is much truth to this. Jobs will not have the same protections, allowing employers greater powers to exploit workers at will. British students will not be able to enjoy part of their studies in Europe through the Erasmus scheme. Rather, Britain will introduce a detached version while absorbing all of the set-up costs. It is unclear how the Horizon scheme will affect UK universities beyond the seven years of associate membership, which remains a concern as it is such a significant source of research funding, where Britain always received out more than it contributed. Much attention has been focused on fish in recent days as somehow the stumbling factor in a deal, but fishing represents less than 0.1% of GDP. The real issue was about the idea of territory, which is associated the objectives of sovereignty, further confirmation of the symbolism associated with Brexit, something that had been at the heart of the initial motivations of the project. Undoubtedly, the EU has its problems, namely countries in the east pulling ahead with their nativist politics, with nations in the south facing alignment issues due to the struggling nature of their economies. The union is far from perfect but it continues to act as a balancing force for all its members, one that Britain contributed to as a leading player but has now chosen to go its separate, merry way. There will be joy in some quarters in the UK. Others will rue what has been lost. Many will continue to scrutinise a fishy deal, sifting through the red herrings. It will also raise implications for families and wider human relations across the English Channel. In Europe, there is relief likely to be followed by a tougher view to go forward with confidence as it still has everything to play while Britain will go on its own in a world very different from 2016 when protectionism is now new normal, and effectively caught between the US, China and EU, who will always put their interests first and foremost.

I have yet to find a single person or a quality argument that supports Brexit. Instead, what I feel and hear among certain English elite actors is smugness, rhetoric or the vision of something once greater — reflecting on how Britain saw itself in the world many generations ago. It is pure folly, myopic and ultimately dangerous for it cannot be sustained without significant human cost, including the very likelihood of racism and exceptionalism becoming dominant themes within discussions of English national identity. For all its limitations, the EU was a check and balance on diversity and inclusion, which remains an ongoing political and cultural project. Without a doubt, this deal, or rather any deal other than the arrangement that existed until now, will lead to misery for far more than the tremendous gains for the very few. Britons will need to prepare for a more unequal, polarised and inward-looking society with the fans of nationalism, nativism and elitism the order of the day. The warning signs are all too clear to see.

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Academic and commentator

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