Lifestyle & Culture

Shocker! One year in, Brexit revealed as the dumbest idea in Great Britain’s long history

The infamous Brexit Bus

If you’re a Remainer, you know everything skeptics predicted about Brexit has come true since Brexit became final one year ago. If you’re a Brexiteer who fervently believes leaving the European Union was the greatest moment in the history of the United Kingdom, think about this: Texas, with a GDP of $2.88 trillion, just passed the United Kingdom to become the fifth-largest economy in the world. California’s $3.35 trillion GDP long ago passed the UK.

So, just two of the 50 American states, albeit two relatively young and wealthy ones, are now a more potent force in the global economy than Britain, a 1,100-year-old kingdom that once ruled two-thirds of the world. (We Americans think of the United Kingdom as having a thousand-year history, but that’s actually England. The English were at war with the Scots, the Welsh and especially the Irish until about 1700 … yet another wound at which the Brexiteers are picking.)

This is not a case of post hoc, ergo propter hoc. The U.S. and the rest of Europe are thriving while the UK is racing backward economically, and Brexit is the main reason. (The Economist just named Italy, of all places, as its “country of the year” for 2021.)

From left, Nigel Farage, Arron Banks and Boris Johnson, the geniuses behind Brexit

Brexit is far from over

I spent New Year’s Day reading “The Never-Ending Brexit” on The Foreign Affairs website, the most thorough analysis of Brexit in a long time. The post, by Kings College Professor Anand Menon, Centre for European Reform, states that trade in a single month – September 2021 – was 11.2 percent, or 8.5 billion pounds, lower than it would have been had the UK stayed in the EU’s single market and customs union. Now, multiply that by 12 and it’s likely that the year of glorious freedom from the shackles of EU tyranny cost the UK 100 billion pounds-plus in lost business.

I’m guessing whatever the final number is will never make it onto the side of a bus.

Brexit, as envisioned and implemented by Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Nigel Farage and Arron Banks, was a silly “Faulty Towers”/”Dad’s Army” appeal to British nostalgia that just got out of hand. The problem is, in 2022, nationalism and chauvinism are the two most corrosive “-isms” in the Western world.

Menon notes the impact of Brexit has largely been eclipsed by COVID. So, we’ve all forgotten that Brexit is far from over. A number of granular and technical trading rules don’t even come into effect until July. You’re already yawning and wondering how “Emily in Paris” turns out. But these fine-print rules could actually lead to Brexit collapsing in the sense that what’s left of trade with the EU could pause along with financial transactions in The City.

But there’s more … if you want to inject some mind-bending complexity into your life, there’s the Northern Ireland Protocol, the never-ending fight over how and where goods coming into the UK from the EU will be customs-controlled, and whether Northern Ireland will remain a de facto part of the EU trade bloc. That’s just the beginning. Menon points out that The Trade and Cooperation Agreement did not include any mechanisms for formal coordination between the United Kingdom and the EU on foreign and security policy.

Playing to the base is an expensive game

Menon’s core point is, if the UK had just been more flexible, it could have avoided a lot of these issues. But like Donald Trump in the United States, the Brexiteers were playing to their base, and that meant agreeing to terms to get Brexit done while intending all along to ignore them once they got what they thought they wanted.

For Johnson, Cummings and Gove, the whole Brexit thing – like the bus stunt – was ipso facto absurdist theater.

From the Economist post:

The economist Ian Mulheirn has made the point that recent rises in taxes—including 29 billion pounds of extra taxes that are expected to be introduced by the government by 2025—would not have been necessary had the United Kingdom remained in the EU. Brexit is forecast to have a net cost to the public finances at around 30 billion pounds a year.

The main Brexit flaw was its premise that leaving the world’s greatest trade organization would “free” the United Kingdom to become a global economic power on its own terms. It hasn’t.

The second flaw: Brexit was the brainchild of a bunch of charlatans. The UK has produced some of the greatest political figures in history, from King Alfred to Queen Elizabeth I to Winston Churchill. Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson are not on that list. What happened to Nigel on his “U.S. Tour” is the perfect illustration of dim-witted Brexiteer overreach. Thinking he had a massive fan base among American conservatives vis-a-vis his friendship with Donald Trump, Farage went on an “American Comeback Tour” of flyover Red States only to find that few Americans knew who he was or cared a whit about Brexit. Which explains a lot about why Trump never gave Boris Johnson that trade deal Boris so desperately needed: Johnson doesn’t matter to The MAGA Base, who couldn’t find the UK on a map.

It would have been one thing if Brexit had been led by a Thatcher, a Churchill or a – irrespective of political orientation – a person up to the task. In the real world, competency, attention to administrative detail and the ability to anticipate problems before they become crises differentiate the great leaders from the sad losers. After a year of Brexit, it’s becoming clearer that Boris Johnson is the latter and Britain will be the poorer for it. Much poorer.

The pain has just begun.

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Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.

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