Johnson remains very upbeat
LONDON: Prime Minister Boris Johnson yesterday extolled Britain’s decision to “take back control of our destiny”, five years after a divisive Brexit referendum whose political and economic aftershocks are still reverberating.
The coronavirus pandemic has masked the trade dislocation caused by the referendum of June 23, 2016, in which a slim majority voted to end five decades of integration with the European mainland.
The benefits promised by Johnson for a newly invigorated “Global Britain” remain a work in progress, while the UK’s own cohesion is at risk from an emboldened nationalist movement in pro-EU Scotland. But Johnson, who rode to power after years of post-referendum paralysis, remains upbeat.
“Five years ago the British people made the momentous decision to leave the EU and take back control of our destiny.
“Now as we recover from this pandemic, we will seize the true potential of our regained sovereignty to unite and level up our whole UK.”
“This government got Brexit done and we’ve already reclaimed our money, laws, borders and waters.”
In reality, Britain remains bound by reams of EU-era legislation, its fishermen are in uproar, and its farmers are crying betrayal over new trade deals.
Britons voted by a narrow margin of 52-48 to leave the EU. A new poll by Savanta ComRes found that if the referendum were repeated today, the result would be 51-49 in favour of staying in. But when asked if the UK should now rejoin the EU, 51% disagreed. “I think that whatever happens, whether it’s going to be good or it’s bad, I think it’s better to have our future in our own destiny,” 60-year-old musician Stephen Clark said in Boston, eastern England, which recorded Britain’s highest pro-Brexit vote in 2016.
But for the majority of Scots who voted to stay in the EU, the question of national destiny rings equally true.
The Scottish National Party is vowing to hold a new referendum on independence by the end of 2023, against Johnson’s objections.
“The impact of Brexit hasn’t come because we’ve been too preoccupied, as the rest of the world has, with Covid,” pro-independence university lecturer Diane Willis said in Edinburgh.
“But I think things are now seeping in,” she said, giving Northern Ireland as one example where the scale of postBrexit complications is becoming clear.
“I think the devil is always in the detail, and I don’t think the detail yet has come out.”
Northern Ireland remains in tumult after Brexit necessitated a set of intricate compromises to preserve its fragile peace. The territory’s biggest pro-UK party has shed two leaders in quick succession, and London is trying to rewrite the Brexit treaty’s Northern Ireland Protocol in the face of protests and legal action from Brussels.
The EU’s ambassador to London, Joao Vale de Almeida, said the UK could face its own break-up.
“I don’t know what our relationship will be in 20 years’ time. I don’t know what the EU will be like in 20 years. And maybe I don’t know what your Union here will be like in 20 years’ time,” he told The Times.
“Who knows? So we have to be ready for change.”
In Britain, at least 5.3 million long-resident Europeans have applied for settlement status to ensure their pre-Brexit rights are preserved – well above the government’s estimate of 3.4 million. Any remaining Europeans have until June 30 to apply, threatening new battles with Brussels if some slip through the net, after London was accused of harshly treating EU citizens trying to enter the country legitimately.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Home Secretary Priti Patel complained in turn that some British expatriates are having problems accessing benefits, services and jobs in EU states.
King’s College London economics professor Jonathan Portes said the immigration changes “will have very long-running social, cultural, political consequences long, long after Brexit and free movement are over”.
Cambridge University law professor Catherine Barnard said EU-era laws “will affect our lives for decades and decades to come”.