Brexit triumphalism obscures a grimmer reality

By Tom Fowdy
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, December 30, 2020
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Photo taken on Dec. 21, 2020 shows the Union Jack flag and the Big Ben clock tower of the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain. [Photo/Xinhua]

Last week saw the United Kingdom and European Union clinch an agreement to set the economic terms of Brexit, which comes into force on Jan. 1, 2021, following the expiration of a year-long transition agreement. The treaty upholds tariff-free trade between Britain and European markets, avoiding the potential disruption of a much-feared "no deal" and establishes a "minimum line" for EU standards to be followed. 

Whilst the outcome is obviously better than the much-feared and oft-threatened no deal, nonetheless it imposes new bureaucracy and red tape on commerce between Britain and Europe making trade more inconvenient. In addition, it ends the automatic recognition of licenses and qualifications which will likely be detrimental to U.K. services. 

Despite this, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his cabinet portrayed the deal with a tidal wave of nationalist triumphalism. They have depicted it as a huge victory for a new "global Britain" – with the prime minister even going so far as to say that Britain can have its cake whilst eating it.

Far-flung trade deals with irrelevant and smaller markets cannot offset the U.K.'s geographically conditioned reliance on Europe. Those advocating Brexit have repeatedly ignored the fact that for nearly 50 years, Britain has deeply integrated itself with Europe. They argue that the departure allows Britain to "make its own trade deals," rather than having to collaborate with Europe, which in fact gives it better leverage. Instead, they propose making trade deals with "Anglosphere" countries, and argue that whatever is lost from Europe can be replaced with these. However, this is misleading. These countries are not Britain's immediate neighbors and tariff free deals cannot replicate the benefits of EU membership whereby the U.K. was physically integrated into a common set of rules and standards which made business accessible, convenient and swift.

The evidence doesn't lie. A study cited in the BBC noted that this Brexit deal will diminish Britain's GDP by 4% in relation to other countries, because it is essentially cutting the country off from a market of 400 million-plus people in terms of physical services and adding new bureaucratic barriers. The talk of trade simplifies and jettisons this more complex reality, yet on the mantra of identity and a concept of what Britain "believes," few are willing to listen. 

In a world where regional integration is essential for prosperity, the U.K. is isolating itself. Boris Johnson is touting bit-part deals with other countries, but it is all style and little substance. 

Despite promoting the notion of sovereignty, the Brexit deal has actually diminished Northern Ireland's role by placing it in a different customs territory to the rest of the U.K. As such, the threat of Scottish independence has now also reappeared with Nicola Sturgeon advocating a better future for people in Scotland by re-joining the EU. Given this, Boris Johnson's triumphalism obscures a grimmer reality, with future risks looming large for the U.K. 

One could well ask: Has it all been worth it in the end? However, only time will tell. 

Tom Fowdy is a British political and international relations analyst and a graduate of Durham and Oxford universities. He writes on topics pertaining to China, the DPRK, Britain and the U.S. For more information please visit:

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