The grim realities of the Brexit deal announced on Christmas Eve are beginning to sink in as British voters face the impending implementation of an arrangement that leaves Britain poorer and more isolated — both economically and culturally — than it would have been had voters in 2016 opted to stay in the European Union (EU). Provided that both the U.K. and the European Parliaments ratify the deal as expected, the new arrangement will take effect in the new year.
The new U.K.-EU relationship has been a long time in the making.
In 2016, when a small majority of British voters opted to take the U.K. out of the EU, Brexiteers promised a fast, clean severance of ties with the EU. However, those promises turned out to be a stunning example of wishful thinking. The Brexit vote unleashed nearly half a decade of political acrimony and increasingly bitter dealings with France, Germany and the other EU powerhouses. Now, however, four and a half years later, Brexit is finally a done deal. It wasn’t fast, and, in the final negotiations, nor was it really very clean.
Boris Johnson rose to power amid the wreckage of Brexit, biding his time as Prime Minister David Cameron was destroyed by the referendum result; and then, over three years, as Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, repeatedly failed to navigate parliamentary revolts against her various Brexit proposals.
Johnson was elected Conservative Party leader in July 2019, gambled that he could win a national election a few months later on a promise to finally deliver Brexit, and ended up comprehensively demolishing his Labour Party opponents — winning a parliamentary majority almost as large as that upon which Margaret Thatcher’s leadership rested in the mid-1980s.
That election essentially ended the 40 months of rearguard actions that anti-Brexit organizations and politicians had engaged in since 2016, and made Britain’s exit from the EU inevitable. The year since then has — the pandemic notwithstanding — seen a series of increasingly frenetic negotiations between the U.K. and the EU as to the terms of the divorce.
Throughout much of the autumn, it looked as if the two sides wouldn’t be able to seal any sort of deal, and that the U.K. would end up not only outside of the EU, but also outside of its preferential trading systems, and having to fall back on World Trade Organization rules to govern trade between the Europe and Britain. The negotiations were rancorous, and, in recent weeks, increasingly pusillanimous. Johnson’s government, attempting to project strength in the face of pretty overwhelming weakness, even floated the idea of unleashing British gunboats on fishing vessels from the continent that veered into sovereign U.K. waters after January 1, 2021.
Of course, much of the acrimony on both sides was more a spectacle designed for public consumption than a real negotiating stance. Behind the scenes, the European Commission and the British government were working overtime to ensure there wasn’t a complete car crash of a Brexit come the new year. After all, braggadocio aside, Johnson’s government knew that the country’s business elites wouldn’t tolerate a no-deal Brexit, and both sides knew that the pandemic had so weakened their economies that another massive shock to the European trading and financial systems would likely be too much to bear.
On Christmas Eve, barely a week before Britain officially exits the EU, the two sides announced they had finalized a deal. Running thousands of pages in length, the agreement covers a huge range of issues — from fishing rights to tariffs, to how produce will cross the Southern Irish/Northern Irish border, to which passport lines travelers will have to wait in at ports of entry.
The headline from the deal is that there will be no tariffs on goods traded between the U.K. and its erstwhile EU partners. That’s a huge relief for U.K. industry, and for businesses that sell European imports in Britain. But, to get there, the U.K. had to agree that its producers would adhere to EU standards, meaning that by and large, European labor, workplace safety and environmental rules will still apply within U.K. industry. That’s good news for labor rights activists, since, historically, the U.K. has embraced an American-style low-wage, low-labor-rights model rather than the more worker-friendly mores of the EU. Conversely, it’s bad news for those Brexiteers who believed they could undercut the EU by luring companies with the promise of fewer worker protections.
The deal goes far beyond workplace laws and trade regulations, however, and it’s in the broader details that U.K. citizens will find their daily interactions with Europe and with Europeans most upended. It will, over the coming years, affect most every area of life in the U.K. For those who aren’t already residents of the respective countries, there will be strict time limits on how long Brits can reside in EU countries in any calendar year, and how long citizens of EU countries can live in the U.K.
There will be no continued U.K. participation in Erasmus, the continent-wide education-exchange program under which students can study in any European country’s universities. Hundreds of thousands of students each year take up these opportunities; now, these doors are being slammed shut.
Perhaps most jarringly, there will be no automatic right for British citizens to work on the continent, and for EU residents to work in the U.K. However, if a professional qualification is mutually recognized on both sides of the divide, there is still the possibility for employers to hire a Brit on the continent and vice versa. But to stay on the continent beyond 90 days in any 180-day period, a British citizen will now need to apply for a long-term visa and residency rights.
A vast range of professional jobs — from doctors to architects to vets — that used to have EU-wide credentialing will now no longer have automatic recognition. If a British doctor wants to work on the continent, he or she will have to petition the country they want to work in to recognize their qualifications.
There will be a replacement scheme put in place for the European-wide health care access that British travelers currently enjoy, meaning that U.K. citizens who travel to Europe post-Brexit should still have access to health care if they fall ill while overseas. That’s a small blessing. But the details of that scheme are still to be worked out, meaning that, come January 1, even setting aside the pandemic travel restrictions, Brits don’t have a guaranteed health care system in place for their continental travels.
Britain will still remain in a number of important scientific collaborative ventures with the EU, but that cooperation sunsets after seven years, and what comes after is still to be determined.
U.K. banks will be limited in what services they can offer customers on the continent, a serious hit for one of Britain’s biggest and most important industries.
It is a bad deal — again and again, what used to be automatic and simple is now complex and bureaucratic; but it will almost certainly be passed by Parliament when members of Parliament debate its terms early in the new year for the simple reason that it is still far better than crashing out of Europe with no deal at all.
Brits have, as a culmination of a nearly five-year fit of national orneriness, finally traded away the right to live and work and study in 27 other countries in exchange for a series of platitudes about “reclaiming sovereignty” and “controlling our destiny” and protecting from greedy continental fishermen a fishing catch that makes up a smaller percentage of the national economy than does the single department store of Harrods.
Brexit didn’t make sense in 2016. It was, however, peddled and re-peddled in the years since as opening up the prospect of a series of glittering go-it-alone trade deals with countries and economic blocs around the world. Brexiteers argued that a weakened EU would be forced, somehow, to bow to Britain’s will in terms of the shape of any deal. They also took heart from the Trump administration’s enthusiastic embrace of Brexit and the promise of a comprehensive free-trade deal quickly negotiated and implemented with the United States.
Now, however, the shabbiness of the Brexit promise is clear. True, there probably will be a trade deal with the U.S. at some point — but the incoming Biden team is hardly champing at the bit to negotiate a deal that rewards Johnson for delivering a separation from the EU that Obama’s administration argued against back in 2016, and that Biden himself remains deeply suspicious of. True, there is now a deal with the EU, but that deal is a far cry from the resurrection of British grandeur, trading dominance and unfettered independence promised by Brexit proponents back in 2016.
The no-win nature of the situation that Britain finds itself in was well summed up by Michael Heseltine, a grandee of the Conservative Party who has spent the past five years fighting against Brexit. “The deal is,” Heseltine told his colleagues earlier this week, “a terrible one.” But rather than voting against it in the House of Lords when it comes up for debate, he will, he declared sadly, abstain, since even a lousy deal is, at the end of the day, better than no deal at all.