Brexit — one year after Britain left the EU

Irina von Wiese

Brussels (Brussels Morning) It seems a very long time ago that on 31 January, I cleared my desk at the European Parliament — filmed by a German TV crew — and waved goodbye to my colleagues and team. By any definition, it was a dark day — the day I had promised my voters would never come.

On 23 May 2019, I had won my seat for the UK Liberal Democrats on one sole campaign slogan: Stop Brexit. In London, no other party, no other candidate received more votes. Londoners had never wanted Brexit: a sizable majority voted to ‘Remain’ in the 2016 referendum. And many of those who wanted to leave had, by then, changed their mind.

Nonetheless, I failed to keep my election promise. By 10.00 pm on 12 December 2019, it was clear that the Conservative Party had won a large majority in the British Parliament, large enough to prevent a second referendum (which would almost certainly have delivered a different result) and force through the Withdrawal Act, a hastily drafted legislation enacting the even more hastily negotiated Withdrawal Agreement with the EU27. I had six weeks (minus Christmas break) left to finish, or, more likely, hand over, my work in four committees, including the vice chairmanship of the Human Rights subcommittee. 

On 30 January, a day before Brexit, the European Parliament Plenary approved the Withdrawal Agreement with an overwhelming majority. Our delegation, the sixteen UK Liberal Democrats, unanimously voted against it. 

Not because we disagreed with the terms of the ‘divorce’, but simply because we could not support any measure facilitating the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. We joined our friends in the bloc in singing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and left the following day in a flood of tears. This, I was convinced, was to be the darkest day in British post-war history.

Little did I know that 2020 would be overshadowed by an entirely different type of crisis, which made everyone temporarily forget the unfinished Brexit business. When the pandemic shut down Britain and much of Europe, negotiations on the future UK-EU relationship were put on ice. 

But Brexit wasn’t ‘done’, as Boris Johnson had claimed. 

The Tory government had insisted on a short transition period to end on 31 December 2020. Even a seismic event like the pandemic did not entice them to request an extension (which the EU27 would have granted). 

And so on 22 December 2020, nine days before the end of the transition period, we find ourselves in a situation, which even the pessimists among us could not have foreseen: amid a second and possibly worse wave of a pandemic, with a new strain of the virus originating in England and raging through my city, cut off from the rest of the world, and still without a deal with our most important trading partners. At the time of writing, the prospect of such a trade deal is still uncertain. The deadline on 31 December is not. 

Without agreement, Britain will deal with the EU27 on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms, resulting in an estimated 8% GDP loss, potential supply shortages and a very fragile political union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland (which de facto remains in the EU Single Market and Customs Union). Scotland is pressing for independence, and UK citizens are scrambling for EU passports. 

None of this was part of the 2016 referendum or the many subsequent promises of those who wanted to ‘take back control’. In reality, Britain relinquished control as well as power: control over the making of laws and regulations she will still have to follow in order to trade, and power to speak as part of the biggest democratic bloc of nations in the world. On her own, isolated literally and virtually from the rest of the world, it is to be feared that whatever is left of Britain will fade into insignificance.

Unlike the pandemic, the economic and political consequences of Brexit will not improve after the roll-out of a vaccine. Although a trade deal could still be agreed upon, the damage done now will hurt the British economy for years to come. 

Potentially more difficult to repair still is the damage inflicted on mutual trust. Johnson’s threat to tear up the Withdrawal Agreement has been noted not just in Europe, but across the globe and most certainly in the US, where Irish-American president-elect Biden rebuked the reckless attitude of the UK government towards the Good Friday Agreement. 

A US-UK trade deal now also looks unlikely, leaving the UK with very few friends to call upon. It will indeed take a long time for the UK to rebuild trust.

But it is not only the UK that has lost out. 

The EU is poorer and less powerful without its controversial but influential former member state. Despite a propensity to disrupt, the UK has played an important role in reforming and stabilising the EU on its journey. In my own political group in the European Parliament, the UK delegation was the second largest and played an important role in balancing French and German interests. 

It also strengthened the majority of progressive, liberal parties against the growing threat of illiberal nationalist movements across Europe, from the Flamse Bloc to Fides, who erode European values from within. It is worth noting, in this context, that however loud Nigel Farage and his Brexit party may have shouted, the majority of the UK’s 73 MEPs were moderate and pro-European. 

They stood up for human and civil rights (both within and outside the EU), for free and fair trade, progressive environmental and climate policy, international cooperation and harmonisation of standards in the single market. They also spoke up for the large number of British Commonwealth citizens in the UK and abroad. After Brexit, these people, together with their British neighbours, lost a powerful platform from which to speak. 

Britain’s voice would have been useful in the context of the all-important Conference for the Future of Europe. Many of the envisaged reforms were at the heart of British criticism of the EU. Had they been heeded to, Eurosceptics may never have succeeded in their quest to force a referendum.

Last but not least, the UK provided a bridge to the US and other transatlantic partners. With Trump (almost) gone, this bridge is growing in importance and may not be entirely replaced by direct relations.

So, after almost a year, it is clear that both sides lost out even before the end of the transition period. Undoubtedly though, the UK lost more, and not just in economic terms. I am especially sad for my British friends who, unlike me, don’t hold EU passports and whose children will lose the freedom to study, live and work anywhere in the EU. 

Their generation will recognise Brexit as a historic mistake, reject the lies peddled by Johnson’s government and pave the way for Britain to rejoin the EU. It is a long path, but I am confident that we will arrive eventually.

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Irina von Wiese is a British politician, who was a Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for London between 2019 and until the UK withdrew from the EU.