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Boris Johnson’s Brexit win was a Pyrrhic victory

To the victor, the spoils. Boris Johnson received the referendum on UK membership of the EU simply over 5 years in the past, went on to win the management of the Conservative social gathering in July 2019, reached a take care of the EU in October and received a decisive victory beneath the UK’s first-past-the publish system within the basic election of December. He has re-made his nation. However has he remade it for the higher or for the more severe? Has he elevated alternatives for British folks, or diminished them? Has he made the UK extra influential and affluent, or much less so? My reply to all these questions is: “the latter”. However I admit it’s nonetheless early days on this story.

A degree that emerged shortly (and to no knowledgeable individual’s shock) is that the Brexiters had misunderstood the EU. Anand Menon of the UK in a Altering Europe initiative at King’s School notes that Dominic Raab (now overseas secretary) stated in April 2016 that “we are able to have correct management of our borders however we don’t should be certain by all this stifling regulation . . . and it’s actually not within the Europeans’ pursuits to erect commerce boundaries”. The EU disagreed. Many boundaries do now exist: they may keep.

The rationale for this predictable end result was that members regard the preservation of the authorized order of the EU, together with the only market, as an overriding curiosity. That is clear from “EU-UK 2030”, a paper from the identical unit. Contemplate Denmark, for instance, for which the UK is each pal and its fourth largest buying and selling accomplice. However Denmark does greater than six occasions as a lot enterprise with the remainder of the EU as with the UK. Financial self-interest meant preserving the EU market, not accommodating the UK. The identical is true for the opposite members. The EU all the time comes first for all of them.

As Menon additionally notes, sardonically: “It was curious {that a} group of ideological purists anticipated their interlocutors to be ideologically versatile and pragmatic.” It’s clear that hitherto Brexit has strengthened the EU, not weakened it. Menon notes that “Even Marine Le Pen shortly got here to understand that Brexit would do nothing to extend public assist for Frexit.” So, EU members fought to defend their pursuits, simply as British politicians should have anticipated.

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

Johnson’s “cakeism” was foolish bravado, as is the view of David Frost, his chief negotiator, that the EU ought to “shake off any remaining in poor health will in direction of us for leaving, and as an alternative construct a pleasant relationship between sovereign equals”. After all, it might be simpler to attain this if Johnson had not lied over the implications of his deal on commerce between Northern Eire and the remainder of the UK and even dared to aim a repudiation of it. The EU rightly regards him as unserious and untrustworthy.

As for “sovereign equality”, the UK and EU could also be equally sovereign, formally. However they’re removed from equals. The UK’s economic system is a fifth of the EU’s and its dependence on commerce with the EU is way higher than the opposite means spherical. These are the realities of relative energy. A realist, such because the Victorian prime minister Palmerston, would have understood this. Why can not Frost?

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

It’s inevitable, particularly in view of the obvious need of the UK authorities for friction with the EU, that relations will keep toxic for the indefinite future. It’s inevitable, too, that the UK will lose extra from this than the EU.

What concerning the financial outcomes? Brexit is in fact not the one shock to have hit the economic system over the previous 5 years. The opposite is Covid-19. However it’s noteworthy that between the second quarter of 2016 and the primary quarter of 2021, the UK economic system shrank by 4.3 per cent. Italy’s efficiency was related. However the eurozone’s economic system grew by 1.3 per cent over this era. Brexit additionally inflicted a big preliminary shock to commerce volumes. A restoration has occurred since then, however UK commerce will find yourself smaller than it might in any other case have been. The consequences of this can cumulate over time and present up in worse financial efficiency than in any other case.

This raises a query: what is going to “taking again management” end up to imply?

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

There is no such thing as a doubt that Brexit has lifted constraints on the federal government. British prime ministers with giant majorities might all the time do most of what they wished, as long as they retained parliamentary assist. Now the federal government doesn’t have to fret about EU guidelines both. So, the federal government (for which 44 per cent of the citizens voted) can act much more freely than earlier than. This type of collective management might imply an awesome deal to many. However, within the many areas the place worldwide co-operation is required, Brexit has not elevated management over the alternatives. The UK should nonetheless persuade different nations. However now it lacks a platform contained in the EU from which to take action.

What about British folks? Have they taken again management over their lives? On the very least, companies buying and selling with the EU and other people desirous to work and research there have misplaced an excessive amount of management, not taken it again.

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

We can not know what posterity will suppose. However to me at this time the guarantees of Brexit appear largely a will-o’-the-wisp. It is not going to improve management, however cut back it the place it mattered most to people and even to the general public at giant. Skilful demagogues transmuted the general public unhappiness into hostility in direction of the EU, which was principally harmless of what folks detested, besides over migration. UK statistics are very poor on this: the variety of EU residents looking for “settled standing” turned out to be 5.3m by March 2021, vastly greater than anticipated. However, strikingly, inflows of migrants from the remainder of the world have now jumped, as these from the EU declined.

Within the longer run, Brexit is prone to harm the UK, maybe break up it, whereas strengthening EU solidarity. In that case, it can absolutely be judged a Pyrrhic victory.

martin.wolf@ft.com

Comply with Martin Wolf with myFT and on Twitter

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