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The UK’s hard Brexit choices have arrived

Mar 23,2021 - Last updated at Mar 23,2021

LONDON — Since the United Kingdom left the European Union, relations with its continental neighbours have gone from bad to worse. On both sides, a toxic blend of distrust and nationalism increasingly infuses almost every contentious issue.

On the EU side, both the European Commission and several member states have woefully mishandled the rollout of the bloc’s COVID-19 vaccination programme. The EU has directed its threats of vaccine protectionism principally at the UK, whose vaccination campaign has so far gone well, while individual European governments have damagingly criticised the efficacy of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

The complaints about the vaccine, developed by world-renowned experts at the University of Oxford, fly in the face of objective scientific evidence, thus inevitably raising suspicions of anti-British sentiment. Moreover, they have made some Europeans reluctant to receive the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and stirred up anti-vaccine sentiment more generally, thereby all but guaranteeing further avoidable COVID-19 deaths. Many European governments took too long to come to their senses and restart their rollout of the vaccine with the full backing of health regulators.

The UK government, for its part, has again deliberately breached the Withdrawal Agreement with the EU that Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed early last year. The UK has chosen to be outside the EU’s customs union and single market, while the Republic of Ireland (an EU member state) remains in both. So, the only way to avoid re-establishing a border between the Republic and Northern Ireland (which would undermine the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to the UK province) is for Northern Ireland to remain in the customs union with a border of some sort between it and the British mainland.

Johnson signed up for this — something that his predecessor, Theresa May, refused to do — and then denied that there would be such a border. Now, his European minister, David Frost (who is to diplomacy what a chainsaw is to origami), has announced that the UK will ignore the Withdrawal Agreement until it gets what it wants. This stance confounds patient efforts to find ways to ease the inevitable problems that will arise from having a border in the Irish Sea.

So, what should have been a quiet period of nurturing post-Brexit UK-EU relations has turned into a barroom brawl. Meanwhile, Johnson’s government recently spelled out how the UK will use its supposed freedom outside the Union in a policy document that attempts to flesh out the concept of “Global Britain” — as if the country had not had global interests and influence for centuries.

It is an elegantly written essay, shot through with well-known Johnsonian traits. For example, it faithfully reflects his predilection for attempting to have his cake and eat it — and thus avoid hard choices. But with almost all serious economists and business leaders expecting slower economic growth for the foreseeable future (as a result of Britain having left its main export market), hard choices will not avoid the UK. It is not surprising that the government has not released an official projection of Brexit’s economic impact; if the figures were good, they would be published in bold.

Although few think that the UK economy will fall off a cliff, goods exports to the EU declined by 40 per cent  in January — immediately after new trading rules between the UK and the bloc came into force. Obviously, some of this decrease was due to the pandemic, teething problems with new UK-EU border controls, and end-of-year stockpiling. But no one will be surprised if the trend continues. While ministers hunt for excuses, businesses face higher costs, more red tape and delayed supplies.

“Global Britain” will apparently get around such problems by finding new markets in Asia. Johnson’s policy paper suggests that the UK is shifting its trade and security focus eastward. Having spent a significant part of my life working in Asia and on relationships with Asian countries — notably India, China, and Japan — I am well disposed to the idea in principle. But what does it mean in practice?

New business in Asia cannot possibly replace all the business the UK currently risks losing in Europe. There is no tunnel between Folkestone and New Delhi, and there are not 10,000 goods trucks a day shuttling between Dover and Shanghai. Despite spectacular improvements in technology, countries invariably trade more with their close neighbors than with faraway friends.

Moreover, EU membership did not stop the UK from doing business with Asia in the past. But whereas Germany’s goods exports to China in 2019 totaled 96 billion euros ($115 billion), the UK’s amounted to just £25.1 billion ($35 billion). And while UK exports to China have increased by an annual average of 3.7 per cent in real terms since 1980, China’s exports to Britain have grown by over 9 per cent  per year in the same period, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Besides cake-ism, the government’s policy review reflects another characteristic Johnsonian feature: a chasm between aspirations and reality that cannot be bridged by make-believe and mendacity. The paper calls for the UK to become a global leader in science and technology, for example. But on the same day that the government announced this goal, British universities expressed deep concern about possible cuts in research funding, not least in science, owing partly to Brexit, which forced these institutions to leave EU research programmes.

So, the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge.

 

Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is chancellor of the University of Oxford. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021. 

www.project-syndicate.org

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