At On New Year’s Day, the United Kingdom will have been completely outside the European Union for a year: outside its political and legal structures, outside its single market, outside its customs union.
It’s what Boris Johnson and Michael Gove – who ran the Leave campaign – wanted. No awkward halfway house like Theresa May had negotiated. No Brexit light. Come out completely. Faded away. Brexit well and truly done.
Only with a clean break, they told us, could the UK unlock its full potential and break free from the shackles of EU regulation and bureaucracy.
Freed, we could regain control of our borders, our money, our laws. We could look to the world in a new era of discovery, strike trade deals away from the EU, creating new levels of prosperity for global Britain.
So a year later, how are things going?
The resignation last weekend of Lord Frost, the Brexit minister, gave a hint that all was not well. “Brexit is now secure… the challenge for the government now is to seize the opportunities it offers us. You know my concerns about the current direction of travel,” Frost told the Prime Minister in his resignation letter.
Some in government suggest that Frost – a purist and bigoted Brexit deregulator – came to suspect that Johnson had no real plan, no real detailed idea of how to make Brexit work beyond slogans and slogans. sound clips.
He was also frustrated by the stalemate over Northern Ireland. A year into Brexit proper, the UK is still at odds with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol which Frost and Johnson themselves negotiated and hailed as a good way to resolve the issues difficult border workers, within the framework of the withdrawal agreement.
Whatever issues annoyed Frost the most, delivering on Brexit promises is proving far more difficult than making them.
What is clear is that, at least initially, Brexit is making us poorer. This has contributed to labor shortages in many industries as EU workers have returned home.
There are deep-seated grievances in specific sectors that have been promised much and delivered next to nothing. Fishermen feel betrayed. Farmers are not sure that a scheme of subsidies and replacement payments will be sufficient for what it is supposed to be. Small businesses exporting to the EU have been hit with additional costs and red tape.
The extent of the economic damage of Brexit has been clearly stated by the Office for Budget Responsibility, which predicts that leaving the EU will reduce our long-term GDP by around 4%, compared to a fall of around 1.5% which will be caused by the pandemic.
Rather than boosting our trade, Brexit is holding it back. Exports of goods fell by 14% year-on-year in the third quarter of 2021 according to the Office for National Statistics, with exports to the EU and non-EU destinations suffering.
According to the Food and Drink Federation, UK food and drink exports fell by £2.7bn (-15.9%) in the first three quarters of 2021 compared to pre-pandemic levels . This was largely due to a drop in sales to the EU of £2.4bn (-23.7%) resulting from new trade barriers with the EU and the lingering effects of the Covid pandemic.
And that’s before new rules on imports from the EU are implemented in January, which business leaders say will lead to further falls and delays. Then, EU food products will be subject to additional physical inspections from the summer.
It is difficult to disentangle precisely what was caused by the pandemic and what is the result of Brexit. For Johnson, the coincidence of Covid and Brexit has proven convenient in a sense, shielding him from blame and clouding the picture. But economists widely agree that the long-term economic hit of Brexit will be far greater than that of the pandemic.
Another central promise of the Leave campaign was that the UK would regain control of its borders. But in a year of tragic losses in the English Channel and unseemly disputes between the French and the UK over who is to blame, that claim has seemed quite hollow. Refugees living in northern France said Brexit had made it easier and more attractive for them to reach the UK in small boats, not less.
Refugees who have fled conflict zones including Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Eritrea have told reporters that the fact that the UK is no longer part of the EU makes it more interesting to risk dangerous crossings because they could no longer be sent back to other European countries. .
Asked how Brexit has gone so far, Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform think tank, said ironically the most obvious post-Brexit negotiating successes for the Johnson government have been in areas where it has managed to stay close to the EU, not walk away from it – such as the ‘rolling over’ of EU trade deals. These include “rollover” agreements with Japan, Canada, Switzerland, Turkey and South Korea which have become bilateral agreements with the UK. The only entirely new trade agreement is the recently signed one with Australia. The UK, he says, has also been successful in securing a data flow deal with the EU, although this may soon come under threat as we seek to weaken privacy rules.
In other areas, Grant says the UK has been weakened, particularly in its influence and power on the European and global stages.
“Lord Frost has refused to have any form of structured post-Brexit foreign and defense policy relationship with the EU – although the EU wants one – and we are paying a very heavy price for that,” he said. -he declares.
“We lack information about what is happening in the EU because we don’t have a regular system of meeting people in Brussels. We cannot influence what happens because we are not in the room. On issues such as Russia, China and climate issues, the British – even outside the EU – could have some influence because we have good people and real expertise.
Joël Reland, a researcher at the independent think tank UK in a Changing Europe, worked on a ‘divergence tracker’ which looked at how well the UK has managed to break free and replace EU rules with his own, as Johnson promised.
What he found was a lack of divergence in many areas and an absence of a plan. “The main message is that the UK has spoken of a big game of divergence. Frost has repeatedly spoken of the long dark years of EU membership and the need for change to unleash growth and innovation, but it simply hasn’t been acted upon. If you look at the most important political changes in the budget or the net zero strategy, there is very little that could not have been done inside the EU.
Reland says that in agriculture, urban regulation and areas like green taxation and fintech, new ideas and progress on divergence are evident, but in big areas like VAT little or nothing is happening. is produced. “There is no common thinking about the strategy of divergence within the government,” he says.
According to him, the reason for this is that while replacing all EU regulations seems sensible, in practice it is complex and costly for businesses.
“I think the UK finds it’s really hard to grow and there’s more bureaucracy rather than less once you try to change everything,” he says. “The cost of having all UK businesses stamped with a UK mark rather than a European mark…it’s not worth it.”
Our latest Opinium poll shows that over 60% of people now think Brexit went badly or worse than expected. It also revealed that 42% of people who voted Leave in 2016 had a negative view of how Brexit had gone so far.
Getting Brexit done was the easy part. Proving that it was worth it and for the good turns out to be much more difficult.