Brexit: after the bad, prepare for the (even) worse

Almost exactly five years ago, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. The aftershocks of that decision are still being felt to this day, as many issues arising from Brexit remain unresolved. Yet what is the way forward for EU-UK relations in the longer term? Henrique Laitenberger explains why the legacy of 23 June 2016 means that more confrontation, rather than cooperation is to be expected.

For the foreseeable future, the EU cannot rely on the UK as a constructive and trustworthy partner. In fact, the coming years will probably see a deepening strategic rivalry between the two. This will naturally strike like a stark claim at first. However, events and developments in Great Britain and Northern Ireland over the past five years make it difficult to reach a different conclusion.

To begin with, it is evident that the UK Government is by now at a stage where it is – by its own admission – willing to break international law (if only “in a limited and specific way”, as Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis put it) when it believes it fit to do so. The unwillingness of the UK to acknowledge, let alone implement, its commitments under the Northern Ireland Protocol may well lead to retaliatory action by the EU – that is, a trade war. The current state of bilateral EU-UK relations is only one side of the coin, however. The strongest argument for pessimism when it comes to the UK’s development are domestic in nature.

Over the past five years, the UK has seen a highly worrisome tendency of democratic backsliding: since becoming Prime Minister, Boris Johnson has undermined the legislature by illegally suspending Parliament; accusing anti-Brexit parliamentarians of “surrendering” to a foreign rival; and preventing MPs from voting on key legislative initiatives such as development aid and trade deals. The judiciary has also faced severe pressures: the government thus attacked “activist lawyers” on Twitter for defending immigrants and pledged to curb the ability of courts to scrutinise the government’s actions. Universities and heritage bodies have been threatened by ministers with defunding and legislative action if they are seen to challenge certain right-wing views or do not uphold a particular narrative of British history. Civil rights are also coming under strain, the UK Government is planning to restrict protests deemed to cause “serious annoyance”; to introduce a compulsory voter ID law in a country that famously prides itself on not requiring its citizens to possess photo identification; and to change the voting system for certain local elections to ensure that candidates are elected by a plurality rather than a majority. It should be noted that this is not an exhaustive list.

There is an argument to attribute these authoritarian tendencies to the persona of Boris Johnson. While he certainly exacerbated this trend, it is doubtful that his departure from office would significantly reverse them. To understand the path the UK has taken of late, it is pivotal to grasp how the 2016 referendum changed the UK, its society, and its constitutional settlement

By the time the referendum campaign ended, debates over the usefulness of EU membership had largely receded behind a more fundamental question of a domestic nature: was the UK to be an open or closed society? Surveys have consistently shown that “Remainers” mostly embraced liberal and pluralist values, while “Leavers” tended to endorse more conservative and authoritarian positions. Voting for or against EU membership thus became a marker of identity, rather than a policy stance. The eventual result of 52% for leaving the EU was consequently interpreted as a victory for those who wanted to overturn what they perceived as a liberal, internationalist consensus in British politics.

This development was exacerbated by the intellectual contradictions faced by the Leave campaign: for long, prominent Eurosceptics such as Tory MEP Daniel Hannan emphatically claimed that “absolutely nobody is … threatening our place in the Single Market”. Yet as the campaign progressed, Leavers were confronted with the inconsistencies of their pitch: how could their campaign slogan of “taking back control” be squared with remaining in an internal market that required adopting EU laws and accepting free movement of EU citizens? The more these dilemmas became apparent and impossible to resolve, the more Leavers rallied behind an uncompromising and nationalist conception of Brexit that foresaw severing virtually all institutional links with Brussels – for the simple reason that it was the sole intellectually consistent vision for withdrawing from the EU.

The importance of this radicalisation process cannot be understated: the realisation of the trade-offs that leaving the EU involved led to the Conservative Party having to face the choice between admitting that many of their promises were unachievable – or adopt the far-right narrative championed by figure such as Nigel Farage that prioritised promoting the spiritual renewal of the nation over negotiating careful compromises to limit the technical challenges and damage that Brexit would inevitably cause. Unwilling to contend with complex and difficult realities, the Conservatives thus preferred to opt for simple, comforting mythologies.

In other words, Brexit heralded a fundamental shift in thinking on the British right that sowed the seeds for the UK’s democratic backsliding: any political action could be justified, so long as it was in harmony with the will of the (majority of the) people, as expressed in the 2016 referendum. If in doubt, this new nationalist policy orthodoxy trumps democratic norms and international law. This is why Boris Johnson is more a symptom than a cause of the British malaise: at the latest since his election victory of December 2019, this interpretation of Brexit has become the UK’s unofficial raison d’état. Any UK Government in the near future will be judged by a substantive share of the electorate and the media as to whether it sufficiently adheres to the populist ideal that the UK is an exceptional nation that is accountable to no one but itself.

There is a strong and justified reluctance to overstate crises gripping established democracies. The risk of trivialising and exaggerating concerning but nonetheless conventional trends within democracies is a real one. However, the opposite is even more dangerous: the consequences of underestimating the rise of authoritarianism in the West have become horrifically apparent in the United States, as Donald Trump and his allies sought to overturn a free and fair election.

The United Kingdom has not reached that point of extreme polarisation and erosion of democratic norms quite yet. Theoretically, a defeat of the Conservatives at the next General Election could offer UK democracy a similar respite as the election of Joe Biden did for the US. However, such an election will not take place before 2023 at the earliest and little seems to suggest at present that there is a path to victory for the UK opposition. It thus appears a matter of when, not if, the United Kingdom will definitively join the league of “illiberal democracies”.

The EU and its Member States must therefore be clear-eyed about the risk of another “soft” authoritarian state emerging at its doorstep and design its policy accordingly. Businesses, in turn, should prepare for disruptive EU-UK trade relations to be the norm, rather than the exception.

Henrique Laitenberger is a Consultant at Miltton Europe who spent almost a decade living in the United Kingdom before returning to “the Continent” and remains a committed Anglophile.