The quagmire that is Brexit

Amir Ali 07 January 2021 00:20 IST
Updated: 07 January 2021 01:19 IST

Once the euphoria of nationalism subsides, Britain will have to face the real issues that affect it

Brexit was a bit of a cliffhanger, but a deal was reached, merely a week before the deadline on December 31, 2020. It put to end years of agonised speculation over whether Brexit would end in a calamitous no-deal.

The agreement became yet another superficial grandstanding moment for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as he was photographed with arms triumphantly outstretched, thumbs upturned on either end. He, quite predictably, proclaimed that Brexit had been “done”. The reality, however, will be grimmer and the devil lying in wait in the detail of the document will inevitably catch up with Mr. Johnson. It may spell doom for his career in much the same manner as the Europe question has brought an end to the career of many a Conservative Prime Minister before him.

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The deal was itself rushed through on December 30 for Parliamentary approval with little opportunity for any meaningful deliberation. It seemed as if everyone just wanted to put Brexit behind them and ‘get on with it’, as the catchphrase that caught on, put it. To the relief of many, a deal was struck, but the widespread sentiment seems to be that a bad deal is at least better than a no-deal.

Brexit may turn out to be a prop that hid the genuine problems of the country: deindustrialisation and the loss of manufacturing, a lopsided economy skewed far too heavily towards services and the financial sector, low productivity, and a country whose public services had been stripped almost to the bone by a decade of almost Scrooge-like Conservative government-enforced austerity measures. It was only the overwhelming presence of the COVID-19 pandemic that forced the British government to loosen the purse strings of the exchequer.

The question that now looms is what will happen to the U.K. and the EU. Both entities can never be the same again. The U.K. wants to be an independent island state with the full panoply of its sovereignty intact. Soon, the most ardent of Brexiteers are bound to realise the pyrrhic nature of this Brexit victory. What will Britain do with all the sovereignty supposedly retrieved from the EU? The sovereignty reclaimed will probably be like a currency whose value rapidly depreciates, or a worthless piece of ornamentation that no one knows what to do with.

Also read | A timeline of events in Britain's exit from the European Union

Through the law of unintended consequences, Brexit might just result in huge changes for both the U.K. and the EU. Ultimately, the English nationalism at the heart of the Brexit project may be responsible for the break-up of Britain. One parliamentarian from the Scottish National Party (SNP) has described the recently concluded deal as a ‘steaming mug of excrement’. The position of Northern Ireland has become that much more precarious and untenable in the union. As for the EU, this is also a bloc riddled with many problems.

The role of the liberal-Left

This is where the liberal-Left in the U.K., grieving almost disconsolately for the loss of Europe, could play a significant role. The tendency to stare too long at the Brexit door that has been shut in the face of the European Union prevents the liberal-Left from looking at other doors and windows that might have opened.

What has really made the EU project meaningful and worthwhile for many in the liberal-Left is its ability to underline the dangers of renascent nationalism across various member states of the EU. To that extent, it is a worthwhile and noble project. The more fundamental flaw at the heart of the EU is the particular kind of economic neoliberalism that underpins it, ‘German ordoliberalism’ as it is known. It is this idea that may need to be redressed. Otherwise, it might become the undoing of the Europe project itself.

On a spectrum of soft and hard versions of Brexit, the deal that was effected by Boris Johnson was very much on the side of a hard one. Such a hard version of Brexit, favoured by the extreme Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party, has always wanted to create a deregulated, low-tax economy. This could bring the U.K. into greater conflict with the more regulation-friendly EU, which is likely to view the U.K. as a competitor, leading to an increase in tariff barriers. For a future free of conflict, both sides should perhaps rid themselves of the particular versions of neoliberalism that have beset them and brought them to this point of bitterness. For the U.K., it is a Thatcherite, low-regulation, and low-tax neoliberalism with its associated hatred of Europe; for the EU, it is the German ordoliberalism that creates economic rules-based orthodoxy, that may in its rigidity undermine the worthy nature of the EU project itself.

Amir Ali teaches at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU, New Delhi