Brexit puzzle grows on UK’s referendum anniversary

Brexit puzzle grows on UK’s referendum anniversary

Friday, June 23, marks the seventh anniversary of the UK’s EU exit referendum (File/AFP)
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Friday marks the seventh anniversary of the UK’s EU exit referendum, yet the nation is still widely perceived not to be “making Brexit work.”

This is not just the view of what Brexiteers disparagingly call “Remainiacs” (those who wanted to stay in the EU), but also a growing number of Brexiteers themselves. Take the example of perhaps the leading light of the Leave campaign, Nigel Farage, who sensationally declared last month that “Brexit has failed … we’ve not delivered.”

The argument of Farage, and a growing number of other Leavers, is that the Conservative prime ministers since 2016 — namely Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak — have failed to take advantage of what they perceive to be the significant freedoms unlocked by Brexit. These include the opportunity to diverge economically from the EU, in areas such as taxation, to seek to drive competitive advantage for the UK.

Significant as this development is, however, the groundswell of discontent against Brexit is far broader. One YouGov opinion poll last month found that regret at leaving the EU has reached record levels, with only 9 percent of those surveyed now believing Brexit has been more of a success than a failure.

In the same poll, the number of Leave voters from 2016 who think Brexit is now a mistake hit the highest level so far, at 22 percent. Most of these individuals agreed that “Brexit had previously the potential to be a success, but the implementation of it by this and/or previous governments made it fail.” However, most (56 percent) of the wider population who consider Brexit to be a failure think it was doomed from the start.

Paralleling the growing disdain for Brexit is a drive by some leading politicians to secure the UK’s reentry into the EU

Andrew Hammond

Paralleling the growing disdain for Brexit is a drive by some leading politicians, including former Conservative Deputy Prime Minister Lord Heseltine, to secure the UK’s reentry into the EU. If the 2016 Brexit referendum was held today, it is possible that the country would have remained in the Brussels-based bloc.

However, a key challenge for UK advocates of EU membership today is that the terms of entry would be different to those on which the UK exited the club. Over time, London had negotiated a series of opt-outs, including of the single currency, plus a sizable European budgetary rebate, which would probably not now be on the table.

It is far from clear that a majority could be secured for any new terms of membership via a referendum, should one be held to ratify the UK’s potential return. Support for the EU since 2016 has been wide, but it may be shallow in any further heated campaign.

It should be remembered that it took euroskeptics four decades to overturn the UK’s first EU referendum decision, which was made in 1975. So it may take at least a generation for any countervailing movement to gain critical mass, by which time the EU could have changed fundamentally.

With the next general election now likely in 2024 and polls indicating that the Conservatives might well lose power, a key question, therefore, is how any incoming Labour government would address this huge issue. The party’s leader, Keir Starmer, has ruled out any government he leads seeking to rejoin the EU.

He is trying to shift the center of the debate away from Brexit versus Remain toward how best to “make Brexit work” in practice. A key, pragmatic reason for taking this stance is because the UK is in such turmoil, with no clear post-Brexit settlement emerging under the Conservatives, meaning that all of the energies of a Starmer government would need to be focused on this issue.

Support for the EU since 2016 has been wide, but it may be shallow in any further heated campaign

Andrew Hammond

The UK is forecast to have the most significant near-term economic challenges of any G7 country. There has also been a wider sense of political drift in recent years, under the governments of May, Johnson, Truss, Sunak and even David Cameron.

So, with Labour having ruled out rejoining the EU and the Conservatives having very few pro-European legislators in their midst following the purges during Johnson’s premiership, it is unlikely that the country will go back to the EU in the medium term. Labour’s focus is much more on making Brexit work better for the UK, given the mess the Conservatives are making of it.

Starmer has pledged to “deliver on the opportunities the United Kingdom has to sort out the poor EU withdrawal deal Johnson signed, and end the UK’s Brexit divisions once and for all.” He argues that making Brexit work is essential because “you cannot move forward or grow the country or deliver change or win back the trust of those who have lost faith in politics if we’re constantly focused on the arguments of the past.”

His forward-looking agenda stresses that the nation must invest much more in the UK’s people and places to try to deliver on the potential the country has. Meanwhile, he wants the nation to take advantage of new freedoms, such as the ability to cut tax on energy bills, which the Conservatives have so far failed to deliver on.

It is in this context that there is growing support across the political spectrum, even within Sunak’s government, for a closer economic relationship with the EU. For some, like the Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party, this means rejoining.

The two main UK parties, however, are more focused on closer ties without EU membership. Within the current government, for instance, Finance Minister Jeremy Hunt has admitted that Johnson’s hard Brexit deal has created damaging trade barriers.

The stakes in play are huge for both the UK and the EU. A new, more constructive partnership can hopefully bring benefits for both sides at a time of significant geopolitical flux, with the Ukraine war continuing apace.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.
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