Boris Johnson’s Brexit win was a Pyrrhic victory

To the victor, the spoils. Boris Johnson won the referendum on UK membership of the EU just over five years ago, went on to win the leadership of the Conservative party in July 2019, reached a deal with the EU in October and won a decisive victory under the UK’s first-past-the post system in the general election of December. He has re-made his country. But has he remade it for the better or for the worse? Has he increased opportunities for British people, or diminished them? Has he made the UK more influential and prosperous, or less so? My answer to all these questions is: “the latter”. But I admit it is still early days in this story.

A point that emerged quickly (and to no informed person’s surprise) is that the Brexiters had misunderstood the EU. Anand Menon of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative at King’s College notes that Dominic Raab (now foreign secretary) said in April 2016 that “we can have proper control of our borders but we don’t need to be bound by all this stifling regulation . . . and it’s certainly not in the Europeans’ interests to erect trade barriers”. The EU disagreed. Many barriers do now exist: they will stay.

The reason for this predictable outcome was that members regard the preservation of the legal order of the EU, including the single market, as an overriding interest. This is clear from “EU-UK 2030”, a paper from the same unit. Consider Denmark, for example, for which the UK is both a good friend and its fourth largest trading partner. But Denmark does more than six times as much business with the rest of the EU as with the UK. Economic self-interest meant preserving the EU market, not accommodating the UK. The same is true for the other members. The EU always comes first for all of them.

As Menon also notes, sardonically: “It was curious that a group of ideological purists expected their interlocutors to be ideologically flexible and pragmatic.” It is clear that hitherto Brexit has strengthened the EU, not weakened it. Menon notes that “Even Marine Le Pen quickly came to realise that Brexit would do nothing to increase public support for Frexit.” So, EU members fought to defend their interests, just as British politicians ought to have expected.

Chart showing the unbalanced dependence of the UK and EU on each other's markets

Johnson’s “cakeism” was silly bravado, as is the view of David Frost, his chief negotiator, that the EU should “shake off any remaining ill will towards us for leaving, and instead build a friendly relationship between sovereign equals”. Of course, it would be easier to achieve this if Johnson had not lied over the implications of his deal on trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK and even dared to attempt a repudiation of it. The EU rightly regards him as unserious and untrustworthy.

As for “sovereign equality”, the UK and EU may be equally sovereign, formally. But they are far from equals. The UK’s economy is a fifth of the EU’s and its dependence on trade with the EU is much greater than the other way round. These are the realities of relative power. A realist, such as the Victorian prime minister Palmerston, would have understood this. Why cannot Frost?

Chart showing the UK economy has had a tough five years since the EU referendum

It is inevitable, especially in view of the apparent desire of the UK government for friction with the EU, that relations will stay poisonous for the indefinite future. It is inevitable, too, that the UK will lose more from this than the EU.

What about the economic results? Brexit is of course not the only shock to have hit the economy over the past five years. The other is Covid-19. But it is noteworthy that between the second quarter of 2016 and the first quarter of 2021, the UK economy shrank by 4.3 per cent. Italy’s performance was similar. But the eurozone’s economy grew by 1.3 per cent over this period. Brexit also inflicted a large initial shock to trade volumes. A recovery has occurred since then, but UK trade will end up smaller than it would otherwise have been. The effects of this will cumulate over time and show up in worse economic performance than otherwise.

This raises a question: what will “taking back control” turn out to mean?

Chart showing Brexit in January 2021 was a sharp shock to UK trade, but there has been some recovery

There is no doubt that Brexit has lifted constraints on the government. British prime ministers with large majorities could always do most of what they wanted, so long as they retained parliamentary support. Now the government does not have to worry about EU rules either. So, the government (for which 44 per cent of the electorate voted) can act even more freely than before. This form of collective control may mean a great deal to many. Nevertheless, in the many areas where international co-operation is needed, Brexit has not increased control over the choices. The UK must still persuade other countries. But now it lacks a platform inside the EU from which to do so.

What about British people? Have they taken back control over their lives? At the very least, businesses trading with the EU and people wanting to work and study there have lost a great deal of control, not taken it back.

Chart showing immigration from the EU has fallen but has soared from elsewhere

We cannot know what posterity will think. But to me today the promises of Brexit seem largely a will-o’-the-wisp. It will not increase control, but reduce it where it mattered most to individuals and even to the public at large. Skilful demagogues transmuted the public unhappiness into hostility towards the EU, which was mostly innocent of what people detested, except over migration. UK statistics are very poor on this: the number of EU citizens seeking “settled status” turned out to be 5.3m by March 2021, vastly more than expected. But, strikingly, inflows of migrants from the rest of the world have now jumped, as those from the EU declined.

In the longer run, Brexit is likely to damage the UK, perhaps split it, while strengthening EU solidarity. If so, it will surely be judged a Pyrrhic victory.

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