As the worst economic crisis in decades squeezes the kingdom, Brits are forced to count the cost of leaving the European Union.
Despite Brexit once dominating UK political discourse, leading British politicians are now reluctant even to discuss it. Meanwhile, an increasing number of Brits are rethinking the costs of Brexit, including those who voted to leave or didn't vote.
As I write this, we are in between two key Brexit milestones: the day the UK's flag was removed from the European Union (EU) on January 31, 2020, and the end of the transition period for Brexit on December 31, 2020.
For many people being denied hospital treatment amid crippling nationwide strikes in recent months, worsened by a cost-of-living squeeze, it may seem Britain has not fared particularly well in the post-Brexit era.
Indeed, even those who support Brexit have now been feeling “Bregret” – as it's been called in the British newspapers. A recent YouGov poll showed most Brits feel it was wrong to leave the EU, while one in five who voted Brexit now regrets their decision.
Moreover, 65 percent of Brits said they would support holding another referendum on rejoining the bloc. While a smaller number said they would support holding one immediately, it indicates that discussions over Britain's future within the EU could resurface. And should Brexit continue failing to deliver, widespread support for it could eventually go extinct.
Worsening domestic situation
While an eminent Vote Leave pledge was to spend the £350 million ($400 million) per week sent to the EU on the healthcare system, nothing has materialised. Not only is this due to the Conservative Party's neglect of public services – especially the healthcare system – there is also an acute shortage of caregivers since Brexit.
According to research by the London School of Economics, increased bureaucracy and formalities over UK-EU trade from Brexit added £210 to each family household's food bill. Worsening living standards are also a knock-on effect of the stagnating GDP, which is estimated to be 5.5 percent smaller by the second quarter of 2022 than if Brexit had not occured, with a loss of £33 billion ($40 billion).
It's not just the costs that are bothering people. The British Chambers of Commerce said Brexit is "not delivering" after its researchers found 77 percent of businesses surveyed saying that the EU exit hasn't helped their business growth, while a small majority are struggling to adapt to new trade regulations.
Even farmers, who were touted as one of the biggest winners of Brexit, have been unhappy with new trade deals, namely with Australia, as they fear the price of lamb and beef will be undercut by that of Australian produce.
It's true that people across the world are facing similar issues and worsening living standards due to the Covid pandemic and the impact of the war in Ukraine on energy and food staples. Yet, UK's case has been further exacerbated by Brexit, mainly as it's predicted to have the worst economic contraction in the G7 in 2023.
While some have suggested the UK's rapid Covid-19 vaccine rollout was a positive outcome of leaving the EU, it's important to note that while the European bloc tried to encourage member states to follow its own vaccine programme, this was not legally binding. Indeed, Britain still had many freedoms within the bloc, such as being outside the Schengen Zone and keeping the Pound Sterling.
So, what was all this for? While there were many reasons for Brexit – such as fears about immigration and opposition to globalism – the brazen psyche about sovereignty which the now-resigned Boris Johnson's government promoted, is also a key factor.
One of the benefits of Brexit, the British public was told, would be that a sovereign Britain would be free to control its trade deals. And that we could easily replace EU trade with solid economies in the Commonwealth and other fast-growing economies. Other ideas were toyed with, such as promoting the Anglosphere to rival the EU.
Pitfalls of “Global Britain”
While all this sounds ambitious, it has arguably yet to be practical in the real world. So far, the UK has signed a grand total of three new trade deals – with Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. While minister Michael Gove wrongly claimed that the UK had signed 70 new agreements worth £800 billion ($968 billion), these were, in fact, continued or re-confirmed contracts from when the UK was in the EU and therefore do not add extra value to the UK economy.
The Conservative government has often overestimated London's pulling power, and the stalling trade talks with India – despite a deadline set for October 2022, showcase this. While the country is an attractive target, as it has recently eclipsed the UK as the fifth largest economy in the world, ministers in New Delhi may be thinking: “What would we get out of these trade talks?”
Indeed, Britain may realise that trade with India on its own terms and that of other countries is not a guarantee. Britain is also pursuing other trade deals such as with Canada, the Gulf and the US - which would not provide anything substantially new or replace EU trade.
Amid what some commentators in the UK have described as “imperial nostalgia”, many ministers have seemed oblivious that Britain is, in fact, neither a superpower nor no longer an empire.
There are other symbolic moves that are symptomatic of Britain’s global ambitions. Along with Johnson's gambit to play an outsized role in providing military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine amid its war with Russia - while simultaneously hiking its defence budget – goals like Britain becoming a “science and green energy superpower” have been promoted.
However, along with other visions like empowering the Commonwealth, all these plans need money. And should Britain's economy continue to stagnate and domestic pressure for economic reforms grow louder, London may have to rethink its ambitious outlook.
Indeed, the 2021 Integrated Review, which championed the mantra of “Global Britain” and highlighted the Indo-Pacific as a critical target for trade, does not account for last year's economic shocks from the war in Ukraine.
As Britain endures these post-Brexit challenges, even citizens across Europe have seemingly become more favourable towards remaining in the EU, according to recent polls. While issues like the Ukraine war may also play a role in uniting Europeans, witnessing the woes of Brexit has prompted people to want to stay in the bloc. Even traditionally Eurosceptic parties like Italy's recently-elected government have focused the debate on reforming the EU rather than quitting it.
While current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has displayed more pragmatism towards some EU countries, such as France, cross-party MPs also oppose the government's plans to scrap remaining EU laws in Britain.
And as the Tory party crumbled in the last year, Labour's Keir Starmer has called for closer trade ties with the EU, amid speculation that he may even consider a bid to reassess London's ties to Brussels in the probable event his party comes to power.
These new economic and security uncertainties that did not align with Britain's initial post-Brexit ambitions may further prompt the UK to look more towards Europe and scale back its gambit in the Indo-Pacific - as it arguably should.
Indeed, there have been suggestions that the UK may emulate other European models even if it did not rejoin the bloc such as Norway or Switzerland.
Given that the British public is increasingly showing signs of Bregret, this shift will almost certainly continue should Brexit continue failing to deliver. In this case, British politicians may seek honest discussions about reassessing Britain’s ties with the bloc.
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