Anti-Brexit supporters outside the Houses of Parliament in London. As Britain’s messy disentanglement from the EU takes effect, many questions will emerge, and many inconveniences will become more visible (Photo: AP)
Anti-Brexit supporters outside the Houses of Parliament in London. As Britain’s messy disentanglement from the EU takes effect, many questions will emerge, and many inconveniences will become more visible (Photo: AP)

Brexit is here and Britain’s still clueless

  • The increasingly disunited kingdom may now have to learn what it means to be a small island
  • The EU is perhaps the only cross-national system of governance that actually works. Its weakening, with the British departure, will have international repercussions for years to come

I was in London the night the UK became “independent". For the capital of a country becoming free, the mood was remarkably subdued. In the part of North London where I live, there were no lights, no celebratory buntings, and at the stroke of eleven (midnight on the European continent), a few half-hearted fireworks were burst.

They sounded embarrassed and tepid, compared to the vigorous noise that greets Guy Fawkes’s night, Diwali, or an Indian cricket win over England (most Indians spectacularly fail Norman Tebbit’s famous test to assess if immigrants had assimilated in the UK or not: which team do they support? Most British Asians would opt for the Asian country that they or their parents had migrated from).

The mood was no more exultant in central London. Prime Minister Boris Johnson wanted the Big Ben to strike eleven times at 11pm to mark the UK’s departure from the European Union (EU), but as the Big Ben is undergoing long-planned refurbishment, officials said no. And the 48% of UK’s voters who had voted to remain in the EU in 2016 (and the 55% who did not vote Conservative in the parliamentary elections of 2019) were spared the spectacle which was only meant to humiliate them.

A week later, British passengers who got off a flight from London in Oslo were uncertain about which queue they should join at the immigration counter. There was one queue for EU and European Economic Area (EEA) citizens; one for all other passports. They were disciplined Brits who mustn’t grumble and who are used to queuing, and they looked enviously at a man from their flight who smugly showed his Irish passport and walked triumphantly through the gates.

Norway is not a member of the EU, but abides by many of its rules, including the Schengen Agreement which permits visa-free travel within the EU. Most British passport holders know that their days of hassle-free entry into Europe are numbered.

The Norwegian officer let the British visitors use the EU + EEA queue, which is as it should be, since for another eleven months, the status of a UK passport, with its maroon cover saying European Union, remains the same. After that, British citizens will have to join the queue for “all other passports".

As Britain’s messy disentanglement from the EU takes effect, many questions will emerge, and many inconveniences will become more visible. For the small majority of voters who voted to leave, this wasn’t a consideration in the run-up to the referendum in 2016 and many others were too exhausted to think deeper before the parliamentary elections in late 2019. Another reality which will hurt pocketbooks is the size of their phone bill if they travel across Europe. At present, there are no “roaming charges", which means people with UK phones pay their local rates when they use the phone in the EU. That will change; roaming charges will return.

The fallout

Job opportunities will diminish not only for British citizens who want to live or work in the EU, but even within the UK. The Irish budget carrier Ryanair uses Manchester as one of its bases. It has recently advertised for jobs, but said categorically that it will hire those with the right to live and work in the EU, effectively ruling out UK nationals from applying for jobs in the UK.

About three million EU citizens live in the UK, and about 1.2 million UK citizens live in the EU, and their status too becomes less certain. While in the EU, UK citizens could live and work in the 27 other countries of the EU relatively effortlessly. As the Ryanair advertisement shows, that may change, since British citizens may not qualify for jobs that require frequent travel to the EU, or need the right to live there. Some UK citizens have already lost jobs, like the 10 British citizens who worked at the Helsinki-based European Chemical Agency.

If there is indeed “no deal" between the blustering British politicians and their firm European counterparts, the UK Foreign Office does not want you to hear about it—it is talking instead of a trading arrangement similar to Australia’s, or a “non-negotiable outcome", a phrase right out of George Orwell’s Newspeak. Investors are jittery: factories relying on fail-safe, just-in-time inventory are making plans to rejig their supply lines.

Many financial jobs will move to Europe, but some manufacturing jobs may consolidate in the UK. Automaker Nissan, for example, is considering expanding in Britain as part of its realignment. At the same time, the Irish capital Dublin is getting gentrified and getting swanky new office complexes to accommodate software engineers, as companies like Google, LinkedIn, and Facebook are expanding there. As the negotiations between London and Brussels will get drawn out, businesses already reeling under pressure due to the downturn brought about by coronavirus would want to cut losses and avoid operating at some risk in the UK, which is now a much smaller market.

We are now in what is known as the twilight period of eleven months—EU laws will continue to apply to the UK, which will abide by them, but the UK will no longer be able to influence political debate in the EU. British members of European Parliament no longer hold office. British absence—as diplomats—will impact some of the smaller European states, which relied on British diplomatic skills to navigate the space between larger European entities ganging up one way or another. They are wary of a big European bureaucracy, a view the UK shared, and which was one reason why the UK had stressed expansion of the EU over deepening ties, precisely to prevent creating a super-state of European institutions. The UK enthusiastically backed the inclusion of former Soviet bloc states from eastern Europe within the EU, estimating correctly that it would slow decisions towards greater integration because of inevitable cultural clashes and different levels of economic development.

Europe, nonetheless, created a common currency and began to build institutions that would be more cohesive. The UK was remarkably successful and adept in ensuring autonomy for itself. Not only did it retain the pound, it was also able to stay away from the Schengen Agreement, which meant visitors from Europe, including EU nationals, had to face immigration checks before entering the UK (with the sole exception of the border with Ireland, due to the Good Friday Agreement). Over the next 11 months, the UK will be a rule-taker and will have to abide by the decisions of the European Court and contribute to the EU budget.

The impending isolation

UK nationals living in the EU will probably continue to enjoy their residential rights, but may have to fulfil fresh requirements from local administrations and won’t be able to move easily from one country to another if they wish to change residence. Each of the twenty-seven EU states has different rules for residency for foreigners who are not EU nationals, which means a UK citizen living in Poland would not be able to take up a job in France easily anymore—intracompany transfers too would become harder.

To be sure, from 2021, EU citizens coming to the UK could need visas to live or work in the UK, and those won’t be guaranteed. Some Indians think that this will make it easier for Indians to migrate to the UK. But despite outwardly good relations between India and the UK at the moment, that cannot be assumed; remember that a major reason for the UK to leave the EU was because of concerns over immigration. If the British voter did not want their builders to be from Bratislava, they will not necessarily want their bank tellers to be from Bengaluru.

There is also the question of the kind of country the UK will become. The pro-independence movement in Scotland has revived, and talk of eventual Irish unification (merger of northern Ireland and the Irish Republic) is no longer idle chatter in pubs. Former European Council president Donald Tusk recently expressed “empathy" for the Scottish desire to join the EU. Unlike England, which voted to leave the EU, Scotland—and Northern Ireland—voted to remain. Scots are already speaking of their post-Brexit identity as “Ex-Brit", a clever rearrangement of “Brexit". Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has already sought support from her lawmakers to call for a second referendum—which Johnson says he would oppose. But the case for such a referendum is strong.

True, Scotland voted to remain in the UK in a 2014 independence referendum by a margin of 55-45, but that vote assumed that the UK was part of the EU. The 2016 referendum vote changed that premise, and since then, support for independence appears to be growing in pro-EU Scotland.

If Northern Ireland decides to merge with the Irish Republic, it would leave a rump nation together—England and Wales. As the Irish author Fintan O’Toole noted in his book, Heroic Failure, the Brexit project was based on the myth that Britain is a plucky nation with the bulldog spirit, which fights against all odds, seeking independence from a domineering foreign power: facts simply did not bear this out.

The UK benefited from being part of the collective clout of the EU—now that clout will be used against it over disputes the UK may have with individual European nations. Spain will want to reopen the question of Gibraltar’s sovereignty. The UK has ruled Gibraltar since the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, and Spain has claimed sovereignty. But the large majority of people living in Gibraltar want to remain British. However, nearly 96% of them voted to remain in the EU, which creates a gap between how the Gibraltarians and the English view the world. While the EU has not supported the Catalan independence movement since Spain is a member-state, it will feel no such compulsion in responding to the Scottish independence movement. While Spain and the UK were both part of the EU, Brussels avoided getting involved in matters like Gibraltar or Scotland. That may change.

The spreading cancer

But there is a bigger crisis the EU has to face, which has nothing to do with the UK —and that is the defiance Poland has shown. The Polish judiciary is embroiled in a battle with the Polish government, and the Polish Supreme Court has warned that Poland may even have to leave the EU because the Polish government has undermined judicial independence and eroded the rights of courts, despite EU criticism. The conservative government wants to restrict judges’ powers, ostensibly over charges of corruption, but the EU fears the real intent is to curb judicial autonomy. Even if losing the UK is like losing an arm, some analysts say, you can live without the arm, because the arm had gangrene and it was diseased. You can have prosthetic surgery and become functional again. But Poland? What’s happening there is like cancer—it can spread quickly.

Other countries in the EU have resented overbearing European bureaucrats. Many have not forgotten the humiliation Greece experienced at the time of its economic crisis. Many critics of the EU believe that Greeks were made to bear the pain so that German banks could recover their loans, and this is not easily forgotten. Poland is not alone in staring back at the EU. Hungary, too, has been challenging EU’s liberal policies and defying the Brussels consensus.

Some in the UK may think it is wise to leave the union since its internal contradictions would some day tear it apart, and at that time, the UK would have had to pick up the pieces with others. But while British tabloids may wish for the collapse of the EU, the fact remains that the EU is perhaps the only integrated cross-national system of governance across cultures and nationalities that actually works, and which has brought peace to a continent torn apart by appalling conflict twice in the first half of the last century. Its continued success serves international interest; its weakening, with the British departure, remains a matter of regret.

The UK is in no mood to listen though. It isn’t yet acknowledging that it has become a smaller nation. Its special relationship with the US may not matter much to a Trumpian White House. The US is livid over UK’s decision to allow the Chinese telecom company Huawei access to the UK market for deploying 5G telecommunications technology. Reports say President Donald Trump was scathing in a recent phone call with Johnson, and vice president Mike Pence has warned the UK that the Huawei licence could be a deal-breaker in trade negotiations between the US and the UK.

Bereft of support from the EU and not loved by an isolationist America, the increasingly disunited kingdom may have to learn what it means being a small island. Its years of fighting as a plucky nation may have just begun.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York.

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