John Rapley is a professor at the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study. His most recent book is Twilight of the Money Gods.
“The EU’s dying,” boasted Nigel Farage the morning after the 2016 Brexit referendum. Declaring, “we’ve knocked the first brick out of the wall,” he predicted a domino effect across Europe. Indeed, within days, far-right leaders across the continent were hailing the result and calling for referendums in their own countries, with France’s Marine Le Pen promising a “Frexit” vote within six months if she won the following year’s presidential election. Brexit, they all said, would make Britain great again and destroy the European Union.
Six years on, it seems Europe still hasn’t got the memo. For that matter, neither has Britain. The United Kingdom, rather than leaping boldly into a brave new future, is imploding. Europe, meanwhile, seems to have found a new sense of purpose.
The British government calculates Brexit has knocked about 4 per cent off its long-term growth, with the U.K. now forecast to be the worst-performing economy in Europe relative to where it was before the pandemic. This surprises nobody except the Brexiters: Europe is the much larger economy and consequently took a much smaller hit from the loss of market access. The Brexit vote was thus akin to Canada leaving the North American trading bloc to stick it to the United States.
The economic squeeze has resulted in an annual loss of £32-billion ($55-billion) in tax revenue – as it happens, about twice the amount Boris Johnson’s infamous campaign bus said Brexit would yield for the country’s National Health Service. Instead, just to keep the NHS from collapsing under the weight of its backlogs, the same Tory government that promised to use the supposed Brexit bonus to cut taxes has instead jacked them up to levels last seen in the 1950s. Meanwhile, the vast trove of new trade deals that Brexiters promised the newly liberated country have amounted to, well, almost nothing. When Justin Trudeau said Britain lacked bandwidth for negotiating trade agreements, he knew what he was talking about.
It should hardly surprise anyone that, amid all this, support for Brexit has weakened. Polls now show that among Britons who have formed opinions on the topic, a clear majority not only believe the vote to leave the EU was a mistake but would, given the opportunity, reverse it.
European voters largely agree, their support for the union having mostly increased since the referendum.
And why not? Britain offers a salutary lesson. The country is cracking up – not with laughter, but literally. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, both Brexit and the subsequent ascent of the Boris Johnson government have driven new supporters into the arms of the secessionists.
In Scotland, the Scottish National Party has found no more potent a campaigner for independence than Mr. Johnson himself, a man who apparently boosts support for secession each time he appears north of the border – which, mystifyingly, he didn’t even know existed, rather as if Mr. Trudeau had wondered why there was a sign outside Hawkesbury that read, “Welcome to Quebec.” Scotland voted strongly to remain in the EU in 2016, and many Scots see the Brexit vote as little more than odious English nationalism.
To a lesser degree, the same goes for Wales. Nationalism there has always been more a cultural than a political phenomenon, but since the 2016 referendum, support for independence has been rising there as well. As for Northern Ireland, while a majority still oppose reunification with the republic, Mr. Johnson’s post-Brexit trade agreement with the EU has created a curious dynamic. Because the Good Friday Agreement required London to accept a deal that kept Northern Ireland effectively within the EU, its economy has taken less of a hit than the rest of the country’s. Over time, the pragmatic centre of the six counties could thus lean toward reunification on the grounds that they might as well secure the full benefits of Europe.
Oh sure, the EU remains a messy, often incoherent work-in-progress. It still struggles to produce common positions on how to deal with China or Russia, which is why the recent U.S.-Soviet summit largely bypassed European capitals. And competition among European capitals has meant, for instance, that the EU hasn’t exploited the opportunities Brexit gave them to supplant London as Europe’s financial capital.
Still, the situation is a far cry from the fever dreams of people such as Mr. Farage. Shaken by the British fiasco, Europe’s far-right parties have not only struggled to build on their earlier gains but have largely abandoned their Euroskepticism, with Ms. Le Pen now saying she favours staying in the union. And the continent’s centrifugal tendencies, which during the 2011 euro crisis caused such deep splits between richer northern countries and southern Europe, waned considerably during the pandemic. Europe’s governments have agreed to an ambitious postpandemic investment program, to be funded by Brussels, a stark contrast to the cutbacks that are descending on Britain.
Today, as leading Brexiters fall over themselves to say this wasn’t their idea, Brexit illustrates that old adage that victory has a thousand parents but defeat is an orphan. Brexit did yield a big bonus – to Europe. It’s now a safe bet that the European Union won’t break up any time soon. But Britain? Place your bets. We’re in for a ride.
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