The UK after Brexit – Matthew Bugeja

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This article appeared first on The Week edition e-published on October 19th. 

Brexit has become one of those things that most people would rather forget about. Ever since that fateful referendum in June 2016, it has come to dominate headlines, analysis and conversations at coffee shops and pubs all over Europe. It is difficult to write about it in any new, and novel way, given how much we have heard about it already. But there is one element that is receiving less attention than the actual Brexit process itself, which is – what is in store for the United Kingdom after it finally leaves the European Union? How will it position itself economically and politically? How will it deal with the great questions of our time, such as migration, economic policy, security issues and the general rollback of globalisation?

These are rather difficult questions, which various Brexit-supporting politicians have only really paid some basic lip service to. Both Theresa May and Boris Johnson, for reasons of political necessity and to offer some reassurance to a deeply divided British public, have promised that the UK would remain on good terms with the European Union, all while seeking to make its own path in the world. Britain would strike a number of trade deals with partners such as the United States, Australia, Japan and Canada, and enjoy a number of benefits that it had been previously unable to enjoy, given that it was previously “married” to the European Union, and needed to coordinate through that forum. In the eyes of Brexiteers, freedom is the sweet nectar that some of them have sought for over thirty years.

The problem is that the world this newly “single and ready to mingle” Britain is facing is one undergoing tectonic changes, to the degree that we have not yet fully understood exactly the direction in which it is all heading. On the issue of trade, it is apparent that the big boys, being China and the United States, are more than happy to throw around their weight with smaller countries in order to obtain trade deals which are advantageous to them. This should not surprise anyone, nor is it morally incorrect. If a country is larger, it should be in a position to dictate more advantageous terms – after all, it is granting the smaller country access to a larger market. In such a situation, the UK would find itself severely disadvantaged with a number of other G20 powers, both in terms of GDP and population size.

Multilateralism, or what some call “globalism”,is when countries work together to find mutually beneficial arrangements. This spirit of cooperation was underpinned by the structures of global institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organisation, which provided a framework for cooperation and diplomacy to resolve issues of trade, debt management and poverty amongst various others. These institutions, particularly the latter two, are currently being eroded through neglect or outright attack by several large nations, not least the United States, the original architect of the global order. In a world in which the strong survive, and the weak suffer what they must, the United Kingdom would find it difficult to navigate an environment of nationalist-fuelled bullying. Yes, the UK is a large country unto itself, but when it comes to the largest and most influential countries in the world, it is no longer sitting at the top table. The European Union, for all of its faults, manages to band together 27 countries, and pools their sovereignty and resources in order to withstand the pressures from both the East and the West. The EU may not always deliver what it promises and when it promises to do so, but the creation of a large club provides members with the opportunity to be heard in a way in which they would have been otherwise unable to.

In addition, the rifts opened up by Brexit may yet prove to be a catalyst for changes within British politics itself. The strong feelings over whether there should be a soft, hard or not Brexit at all created fractures both between and within the political parties, but also within society itself. These fractures do not seem likely to to heal in the short to medium term, and may embolden parties like the newly founded Brexit party and nationalists in Northern Ireland and Scotland, with the latter already considering for a new independence referendum, only a few short years since its last one, in order to remain within the European Union. In the worst case scenario, the UK may face violence in Northern Ireland if the border issue is not resolved with the EU, and find Scotland obtaining its independence. That would simultaneously make the UK less safe, as well as both weaker and poorer amongst the community of nations, affecting its credibility and standing.

Focusing on Brexit has been absolutely paramount for the past three years (yes, it has been nearly three and a half years since the referendum), with some justification. The UK will remain a close partner of the EU going forward, without a doubt, although they may clash on certain trade and economic issues from time to time. But in deciding to go in their own direction, the British people are embarking upon an experiment without parallel – extricating themselves from an economic and trade bloc to forge their own path in a brave new world.

Can the UK succeed? Eventually, I believe they can. Will it pay off for them? That depends on what you qualify as being a success or failure. The UK will certainly find its feet. The British people have long been some of the most courageous, innovative and resilient people in the Western world. They will need those qualities if they are set out on their own, into the great unknown.