It has been two months since the UK discarded the last vestiges of its membership of the EU and it’s tempting to ask, what’s changed? Boris Johnson promised liberation. In the gushing rhetoric of the prime minister, the UK would recapture the spirit of its seafaring ancestors. Instead, the prevailing emotion among ministers and Conservative MPs is resentment. “Global Britain”, it seems, remains under threat from a malevolent EU.
The direct impact of departure from the single market and customs union has been blurred by the shock delivered by the coronavirus pandemic. That said, the disruption has been broadly as predicted by the withdrawal and trade agreements signed with the EU27. The effect will be felt over time in slower growth and reduced prosperity. Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, continues to claim that the country will be better off in the long run. His caveat is that it will take a decade for the gains to show.
Business with the EU has been upended by the introduction of new rules of origin and customs bureaucracy. Some in the food and fishing industries have seen their exports blocked by the EU’s phytosanitary regime. Entertainers, artists and professional service workers face complex new visa and work permit regimes. The deal that has kept Northern Ireland in the customs union and single market has necessarily drawn a border between the province and Great Britain. No surprises here. The frictionless trade promised by Johnson was always a fiction.
In the main, such disruptions simply mark out the structural difference between membership of the single market and customs union and the terms of the fairly basic trade agreement signed by the government. The new barriers to British business and workers and the obstructions faced by the City of London’s financial services industry delineate the trade-off Johnson chose between national “sovereignty” and the EU’s rules on market access for third countries.
These arrangements secured the overwhelming backing of Conservative MPs. Brexit, however, was never going to salve the pervasive sense of grievance among its champions. The anger now directed at an allegedly vindictive EU says as much about the Brexiters’ view of their own country as it does about the doings of the Eurocrats.
The Leave campaign was driven by English exceptionalism — a nostalgic, impossible quest to reinstate a great power role. In truth, taking back control of the nation’s “borders, laws and taxes” was never going to usher in Johnson’s second Elizabethan age. And if Britain cannot be what the Brexiters want it to be, the EU must be responsible.
During nearly half a century of EU membership, Britain’s relationship with its European partners was set by a swirl of hubris, fear and grievance. The hubris, born of empire, spoke to the UK’s global horizons; the fear was one of being left behind by a continent that was setting the pace in the postwar world; and the grievance was rooted in the notion that the Europeans were ever conspiring against their island neighbour.
The hubris continues to flourish. The UK’s success in rolling out an effective Covid-19 vaccination campaign has prompted joyous comparisons with the faltering efforts of many EU states — a celebration all the richer because some European leaders snubbed the Oxford vaccine produced by AstraZeneca. In Johnson’s favourite phrase, Britain is turning in a “world-beating” effort.
Sitting alongside the superiority is the familiar resentment — the conviction that the EU is still a conspiracy to do Britain down. The European Research Group of Tory MPs has reframed the Irish protocol as a plot to drive a wedge between Northern Ireland and the UK. The MPs want Johnson to tear it up. Elsewhere, the EU is accused of being punitive simply for enforcing the rules of the trade agreement. Johnson faces calls from his own side to retaliate. The UK may have left the club but it is already clear the EU will continue to serve as a scapegoat.
You could say none of this matters too much. Brexit is done and the EU and the UK will go their separate ways. Who cares about a few xenophobic insults hurled across the channel? But indifference to this would be to make the mistake of the Brexiters. The facts of geography, economics and national security still demand a close, co-operative relationship between the UK and its continental neighbours. At some point down the road the Brits will understand this again. The question is for how long the nation’s interests will be elbowed aside by the crude emotions of identity politics.