Brexit: Finale at last!

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The British public will have to face the repercussions of the sordid Brexit saga, mostly based on lies, during the pandemic times.

On 31 December 2020, at 11 pm UK time and 12 pm Brussels time, four years, 27 weeks and two days after a referendum that split the UK almost down the middle in 2016, the curtains on the Brexit saga, finally came down, as the UK left the embrace of the European Union (EU) in a departure that was notably low key.

Most observers view the Brexit campaign, which claimed the job of two British prime ministers in its wake, as one built on lies and deceit. With public being misled and fed wrong and inflated information, the result was in favour of some politicians who acceded to the chair at No. 10, like Boris Johnson.

In his New Year message, British prime minister Boris Johnson largely ignored Brexit, an issue he arguably shaped more than any other politician. Instead he preferred to focus on the toll of Covid-19 and what he called “the grimness of 2020”. It seemed a far cry from his 2019 message, when after his recent election victory, he had promised “a fantastic year and a remarkable decade for our United Kingdom”.

He described the moment as ‘amazing’, citing what he said were boundless possibilities with trade and innovation, and UK was now “free to do trade deals around the world, and free to turbocharge our ambition to be a science superpower”. He added: “We have our freedom in our hands and it is up to us to make the most of it.”

Politicians’ reactions

Politicians in Britain and the EU expressed both triumph and bitter regret after the UK’s Brexit transition period ended on New Year’s Eve. Though most of the Conservative leaders and politicians like Nigel Farage exulted in their messages.

However, across the Channel, the French president Emmanuel Macron in his new year’s address, expressed regret. “The United Kingdom remains our neighbour but also our friend and ally,” he said. “This choice of leaving Europe, this Brexit, was the child of European malaise and lots of lies and false promises.”

Nearer home in Scotland, which had voted ‘Remain’ strongly in the 2016 Brexit referendum, the pro-independence Scottish first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, promised to continue the Scottish independence drive, she tweeted: “Scotland will be back soon, Europe. Keep the light on.” In a retort Johnson said the Scots could continue to dream, as this one will not be fulfilled during this generation.

Nigel Farage, who played a key role in the 2016 referendum, tweeted: “25 years ago they all laughed at me. Well, they’re not laughing now.” The UK’s chief Brexit negotiator, Lord Frost, said the UK had a “great future before us” with the chance to “build a better country for us all”. The Conservative MP Bill Cash, who has campaigned for Brexit for decades, said it was a “victory for democracy and sovereignty.”

UK media coverage

Britain’s Eurosceptic newspapers, after decades of bashing Brussels, celebrated victory in the year’s first day editions after the Brexit transition period ended, but pro-EU outlets dwelt on a “day of sadness”.

The Guardian’s headline focused on Britain finally quitting the EU in the midst of a “crisis, without fanfare”, an editorial called Brexit a “tragic national error”. The Times splashed Johnson’s “upbeat new year’s message” celebrating an “amazing” future for the UK. The online Independent ran a satirical cartoon portraying leading Brexiteers as various species of fish. The front page of the Daily Express showed a picture of the White Cliffs of Dover and the headline “Our future. Our Britain. Our destiny”. The Sun relegated the Brexit story to a front-page box headlined “PM: Britain Brexpects”, reporting Johnson’s words that Brexit marked a moment for national renewal in which the country would “turbocharge” scientific innovation. “Welcome to 2021 – and two reasons to hope for a much brighter future,” ran the Daily Telegraph headline, where Johnson made his name as a Brussels-bashing Europe correspondent in the 1990s. The Daily Mail preferred to focus entirely on the pandemic-related news, coolly ignoring the Brexit. 

View from the Europe

Several European commentators weighed in on what Britain’s departure from the EU means. Most viewed its reputation for pragmatism and probity shredded by a campaign which they saw as profoundly populist and dangerously dishonest, and predicted an uncertain future for the UK.

The Guardian reported Rem Korteweg, of the Clingendael Institute thinktank in the Netherlands, as saying “For us, the UK has always been seen as like-minded: economically progressive, politically stable, respect for the rule of law – a beacon of western liberal democracy, … which has been seriously hit by the past four years. Brexit is an exercise in emotion, not rationality; in choosing your own facts. And it’s not clear how it will end.”

Britain’s long-polished pragmatic image had been “seriously tarnished”, Nicolai von Ondarza, of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs told The Guardian. But trust in the UK, too, had taken a heavy battering on the Brexit rollercoaster, he added.

The “sovereignty” in whose name Brexit was done remained, essentially, a myth, Jean-Dominique Giuliani, of the Robert Schuman Foundation in France, told The Guardian. ‘Take back control’ is a nationalist, populist slogan that ignores the reality of an interdependent world. Our maritime neighbour will be much weakened,” he added.

The German historian Helene von Bismarck doubted whether Brexit would end what she described as a very British brand of populism. “British populism is a political method, not an ideology, and it does not become redundant with Brexit,” she said. She identified two key elements in this method: an emotionalisation and over-simplification of highly complex issues, such as Brexit, the Covid pandemic or migration, and a reliance on bogeymen or enemies at home and abroad. “Populists depend on enemies, real or imagined, to legitimise their actions and deflect from their own shortcomings,” she said. If the EU has been the “enemy abroad” since 2016, it will steadily be replaced by “enemies within”.

Elvire Fabry, of France’s Institut Jacques Delors, told The Guardian that the past four years had shown Europeans and Britons “just how little we really knew each other”. They had also revealed, she said, the fragility of a parliamentary system seen by many on the continent as a point of reference.

In Der Spiegel, Nikolaus Blome opined that there was “absolutely nothing good about Brexit … which would never have happened had Conservative politicians not, to a quite unprecedented degree, deceived and lied to their people”.

Meanwhile, the UK has now signed trade agreements with 62 countries, the latest one with Turkey, after agreements with Japan, Canada, Switzerland and Norway were secured earlier.

Also the news of the British prime minister’s father Stanley confirming that he is applying for a French passport came as a shot in the arm of anti-Brexit lobby. Stanley Johnson described himself as a French not a British, he was one of the first UK civil servants to work in Brussels after Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1973.

The critics are also warning of how the individuals and businesses both in the UK and beyond may face a dizzying new array of red tape, a good deal of it still to be worked out. In addition, the parting of ways could also have major constitutional repercussions for the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland, which shares a border with EU member the Republic of Ireland, remains more closely tied to the bloc’s economy under the divorce terms, a status some fear could pull it away from the rest of the UK, just like Scotland, which is clamouring for independence, and if any of them succeed, then the United may fall like a house made of play cards.

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