At midnight on 31 January, in Brussels, the Union Jack was symbolically removed from the national flags designating the membership the member states of the European Union. Rather like the forlorn lowering of the Soviet hammer and sickle flag in the Kremlin on 25 December 1991, there was no ceremony; no one had a sense of triumph. In London and the regional capital cities of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland the celebrations were well behaved, but there were no national rejoicings. The promised revival of the Big Ben clock over the Westminster Parliament did not materialise; Boris Johnson characteristically struck his own gong in Downing St.
There is no going back. There were a few scattered gatherings of European well-wishers, but no hostile demonstrations. The triumphant victory of Boris Johnson’s Brexit Conservative Party had sealed the fate of the Remain communities. The leader of the pro-remain Liberal-Democratic Party, Jo Swinson, had lost her Parliamentary seat; and the EU leaning Labour Party leaders had resigned. The Brexiteers, against immense odds, had won the war. But will they win the peace?
According to the Withdrawal Agreement, existing regulations will stay in place during the ‘implementation period’ of negotiations between the EU and UK until 31 December 2020. The UK will remain in the single market and customs’ union and other EU laws (with some exceptions) will continue. The UK will seek an open trade agreement along the lines negotiated by Canada with the EU; if successful, there would be no or minimum tariffs and quotas. This would satisfy merchants and current suppliers in the export trade on both sides. The current UK trade deficit (£94 billion) supports EU producers, profits and employment. European industries have a strong motive to come to a satisfactory mutual agreement. However, the EU is concerned to maintain a ‘common playing field’ of working conditions so as not to favour British exporters; the EU will also seek access to UK fishing waters. As the UK is not a partner to the Schengen free movement of people, UK citizens will access European countries in much the same way as at present. However, EU citizens will not have the right to live in the UK: here a requirement of a job with a minimum salary of (at present) £30,000 per annum will be required.
The UK’s post-Brexit government, as it gains control over its laws, monetary and economic policy, will endeavour to introduce policies to ‘win the peace’. This means greater public expenditure, particularly on regional development. Outside the EU, government subsidies will be allowed. Agriculture, fishing, transport and telecommunications will be supported. Immigration will undoubtedly be curbed and, to meet the gaps in the labour market, vocational education will be improved. Such policies will only partly address the de-industrialisation which has badly affected the north and west of the UK. There are other structural problems involved related to the flight of manufacturing and technological progress which has severely reduced not only the number of working class jobs but particularly the number of well-paying skilled manual and non-manual jobs. The social divide, between the younger educated people in non-manual occupations in the service sectors located around London and the major university towns and research centres, and older people with lower levels of education, with precarious jobs or no jobs at all, is likely to continue.
Regional imbalances negatively affect Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland which have their own parliamentary assemblies. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union which bolsters their claims for independence from the UK. In Scotland, in 2014, the vote for independence promoted by the Scottish National Party under Nicola Sturgeon was lost by a ratio of 45.5 per cent to 55.5 per cent. The Johnson government claims that this was a ‘once in a generation’ decision and precludes another independence referendum. However, should the SNP win a handsome majority in the Scottish Parliament in the forthcoming elections, any London government forbidding a referendum would precipitate a confrontation similar to that in Spain between the national government and Catalonia.
Northern Ireland is an equally contentious issue and the province legally has secured a right to a referendum on unification if sufficient political support can be shown. While claims for unification are growing along with the demographic rise in the number of Catholics, support for such a move is highly divided and the population is polarised.
One possible way to ‘win the peace’ would be further devolution of power from the UK Parliament. The EU will return many powers to the UK after Brexit which could enhance and empower regional governments. As the costs to Scotland and Northern Ireland of breaking away from the UK would be great, a constitutional realignment of the regions, giving them powers transferred from Brussels, would help to diffuse the problem.
The UK’s place in the world
Exit from the European Union has not yet adversely affected the UK economy. On the contrary, the IMF has raised its predicted growth for the UK to 1.4 percent – higher than its European rivals – France and Germany. Britain will have to seek trading partners with the United States, the Anglo-sphere of the former British dominions and the rising powers of China and India. American influence will certainly rise, as access to the US market will be crucial for British exports. The UK is already closely aligned to the USA in defence policy, intelligence sharing, investment and asset ownership. The completion of a commercial agreement with Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications provider, which was opposed by the USA, indicates that the UK is unlikely to be greatly restricted by the USA. China is likely to become a crucial trade and commercial partner.
In wider political affairs, the UK remains a staunch NATO member and the Atlantic Alliance will be strengthened. Britain is likely to continue to follow the Americans on Middle East issues: Israel/Palestine, Syria and Iran. In Europe, the departure of the UK from the EU will weaken its role in Europe as a conduit for American influence. Pro-EU sentiment in the UK has suffered a significant reverse and France and Germany are likely to articulate a more independent European line in international affairs.
Effects in Europe
The implications for the future of the European Union will also depend on how successful the UK becomes as an independent actor. The EU leadership has been dealt a heavy blow – psychologically as well as politically – by the UK’s exit. If the new UK government under Johnson can manage the discontent caused in Britain by market policies and restricted state management, and introduce positive policies promoting evenly spread economic welfare, then this will unquestionably energise the populist Euro-sceptic movement in Europe. The current economic down-turn as well as political protests, notably in France, may stimulate a change in policy by the Commission to devolve more powers to the member states.
On the other hand, if Brexit fails, without the UK’s membership and its Atlanticist leanings, the continental powers, led by Germany and France, will be less divided and push on with further economic, political and military alignment.
David Lane is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and currently Emeritus Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge University. Recent publications include: Changing Regional Alliances for China and the West (With G. Zhu) (2018); The Eurasian Project in Global Perspective (2016); (With V. Samokhvalov) The Eurasian Project and Europe (2015); Elites and Identity in the Transformation of State Socialism (2014).