Three years on from Britain’s exit from the EU, the deep impact on our economy and national standing is now undeniable, writes Adam Bienkov
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“Broad sunlit uplands await us”, Jacob Rees-Mogg confidently predicted to MPs, shortly before Britain’s exit from the EU. Three years on and those sunlit uplands have singularly failed to materialise.
In fact, according to the International Monetary Fund’s latest forecast, the UK is now the only major economy set to shrink this year. Once branded the “Poor Man of Europe”, Britain increasingly looks like the poor man of the developed world.
The cause of this decline is obvious, with economists pointing to the shortage of European workers as a major contributing factor to Britain’s economic gloom.
In a speech last week, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt instead sought to blame the country’s woes on what he called the ‘Black Swan’ events of the pandemic and Ukraine war. But while these have affected all developed nations, Britain is alone in failing to recover from them.
According to the IMF, even Russia – hit by massive international sanctions – is set to out-perform the UK. When it comes to our nearest global competitors, the self-imposed economic sanctions of Brexit appear to outweigh all others.
That Brexit is significantly contributing to this economic decline should now be indisputable. According to the Government’s own Office for Budget Responsibility, Brexit is set to shrink the potential size of the UK economy by 4%, with the UK’s trading potential set to fall by 15% in the long term.
“Very clearly, Brexit was an economic own goal”, the IFS’ director Paul Johnson said at the end of last year. “Economically speaking, that has been very bad news indeed and continues to be bad news.”
However, it’s not just the economy that has been badly damaged by Brexit, but our politics too.
For decades, Britain was seen around the world as a relatively stable country that rarely suffered the sort of political ruptures that affected other nations. But in the nearly seven years that have followed the vote to leave the EU, Britain has become a byword for political chaos.
In that relatively short period, the UK has had five prime ministers, seven chancellors and is currently gearing up for its third general election. Meanwhile, the Government which took the decision to hold the EU Referendum in the first place has become paralysed by scandal and allegations of corruption.
The British public has noticed. A poll commissioned by Byline Supplement last week found that 65% of voters now believe the Conservative Party is ‘institutionally corrupt’, with just 18% disagreeing.
But rather than face up to the damage caused to our national standing by Brexit, Rishi Sunak’s Government appears to be in a state of permanent denial about it. A spokesman for Sunak today insisted that the UK had seen “significant benefits from Brexit”.
In his speech last week, the Chancellor accused those who criticise Britain’s exit from the EU of committing ‘declinism’.
“Declinism about Britain is just wrong,” he told an audience in the City of London. “It has always been wrong in the past – and it is wrong today.”
Yet, in reality, it is not the critics of Brexit who are committing “declinism”, but those who continue to refuse to face up to its real impact.
The result of this refusal is that Britain remains in a state of apparent paralysis. When senior figures within Sunak’s administration briefed the press last year that the Prime Minister was considering taking the UK into a closer Swiss-style trading agreement with the EU, the news caused an immediate backlash from Conservative MPs. Within hours, Downing Street was forced to deny its plans, leaving the UK economy rooted in its continued state of decline.
Senior figures in Government, and their supporters in the media, appear locked in an alternate reality where the real chains holding Britain back are the continued adoption of European regulations and the absence of further tax cuts.
Yet among the British public, the real cause of decline seems increasingly obvious.
While the current Government was elected on a pledge to “get Brexit done”, the reality of three years of economic isolation has turned support for remaining outside the EU into a decidedly minority position.
According to one major poll this week, there is now just one constituency in the entire country where more voters believe Brexit wasn’t a mistake than believe it was. In every other part of the nation, the settled opinion is that Brexit was an error.
As a result, 63% of all decided voters now say they would vote to rejoin the EU were another vote held today, according to the latest polling by Omnisis. Were a new vote to be held tomorrow, Britain would almost certainly return as a full member of the European Union.
Such a vote is unlikely to happen any time soon, however. The Labour Party, the leader of which was elected thanks to his support for a second referendum on Brexit, is now committed to “making Brexit work”.
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What that pledge would mean in reality is as yet unclear.
Keir Starmer has pledged to significantly renegotiate the terms of Britain’s trade agreement with the EU when it comes up for renewal in 2025. He has also committed to “eliminating most border checks” with Europe, as well as negotiating a “new veterinary agreement for agri-products” and “mutual recognition of professional qualifications”.
However, any such renegotiation is unlikely to fully reverse the harm caused by Brexit. To date, Starmer has ruled out the UK ever re-joining the Single Market or Customs Union under his government, meaning the main chains holding the UK economy back are unlikely to be lifted any time soon.
As a result, any Labour government would likely only round the edges of the Brexit deal which has so clearly wounded the UK economy.
It remains to be seen whether this is a sustainable position. With economic and political reality both pointing towards the need for Britain to fundamentally rethink its relations with the EU, Labour’s stated plans to merely tinker around the edges of the UK’s current deal is unlikely to prove sufficient.
But, whatever the party ultimately decides, the damage caused by Brexit is now abundantly clear. Far from blowing the clouds away from Britain’s economic and political horizon, Brexit has left the nation in a state of seemingly permanent gloom.
And until our leaders acknowledge that fact, the first steps of our national recovery will never truly begin.
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