Opinion: Brexit didn’t end the European Union – it gave it new meaning

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John Rapley is a professor at the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study. His most recent book is Twilight of the gods of money.

“The EU is dying,” boasted Nigel Farage the day after the 2016 Brexit referendum. Declaring “we have knocked down the first brick of the wall”, he predicted a domino effect across Europe. Indeed, within days, far-right leaders across the continent hailed the result and called for referendums in their own countries, with France’s Marine Le Pen promising a “Frexit” vote within six months if she won the election. presidential election the following year. Brexit, they all said, would make Britain great again and destroy the European Union.

Six years later, it seems Europe still hasn’t gotten the memo. Neither does Great Britain. The UK, rather than boldly leap into a brave new future, is imploding. Europe, meanwhile, seems to have found a new purpose.

The UK government calculates that Brexit has reduced its long-term growth by around 4%, with the UK now forecast to be the worst performing economy in Europe compared to before the pandemic. It comes as no surprise to anyone except Brexiters: Europe is the largest economy and has therefore been much less affected by the loss of market access. The Brexit vote was therefore akin to Canada leaving the North American trading bloc and sticking it to the United States.

The economic strain has resulted in an annual loss of £32billion ($55billion) in tax revenue – in this case, around double the amount Boris Johnson’s infamous campaign bus said Brexit would bring in at the country’s National Health Service. Instead, just to prevent the NHS from collapsing under the weight of its backlogs, the same Conservative government that promised to use the supposed Brexit bonus to cut taxes instead raised them to levels never seen in the 1950s. Meanwhile, the vast treasure trove of new trade deals Brexiters promised the newly liberated country amounted to, well, next to nothing. When Justin Trudeau said Britain lacked the bandwidth to negotiate trade deals, he knew what he was talking about.

It should hardly surprise anyone that, in the midst of all this, support for Brexit has waned. Polls now show that among Britons who have made up their minds on the matter, a clear majority not only believe the vote to leave the EU was a mistake, but would reverse it, given the chance .

European voters largely agree, with their support for the union having mostly increased since the referendum.

And why not? Britain offers a salutary lesson. The country is cracking up – not laughing, but literally. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, Brexit and the subsequent rise of Boris Johnson’s government have thrust new supporters into the arms of secessionists.

In Scotland, the Scottish National Party has found no more powerful independence campaigner than Mr Johnson himself, a man who apparently bolsters support for secession every time he appears north of the border – which, strangely, he didn’t even know existed. , as if Mr. Trudeau had wondered why there was a sign outside Hawkesbury that said “Welcome to Quebec”. Scotland voted strongly to remain in the EU in 2016, and many Scots view the Brexit vote as little more than odious English nationalism.

To a lesser extent, the same is true for Wales. Nationalism has always been more of a cultural than a political phenomenon there, but since the 2016 referendum, support for independence has also increased there. As for Northern Ireland, while a majority still oppose reunification with the republic, Mr Johnson’s post-Brexit trade deal with the EU has created a curious dynamic. Because the Good Friday Agreement forced London to accept a deal that effectively kept Northern Ireland in the EU, its economy was less affected than that of the rest of the country. Over time, the pragmatic center of the six countries might thus lean towards reunification on the grounds that they might as well secure the full benefits of Europe.

Of course, the EU remains a messy and often disjointed work in progress. It is still struggling to produce common positions on how to deal with China or Russia, which is why the recent US-Soviet summit largely bypassed European capitals. And competition between European capitals means, for example, that the EU has not exploited the opportunities Brexit has given it to supplant London as the financial capital of Europe.

Yet the situation is a far cry from the feverish dreams of people like Mr. Farage. Reeling from Britain’s fiasco, Europe’s far-right parties have not only struggled to build on their earlier gains but have largely abandoned their euroscepticism, with Ms Le Pen now saying she favors staying in the union. And the continent’s centrifugal tendencies, which during the 2011 euro crisis caused such deep divisions between the wealthier northern countries and southern Europe, have blurred considerably during the pandemic. European governments have agreed an ambitious post-pandemic investment programme, which will be funded by Brussels, a stark contrast to the budget cuts that are beating down on Britain.

Today, as leading Brexiteers crumble to say it wasn’t their idea, Brexit exemplifies that old adage that victory has a thousand parents but defeat is an orphan. Brexit has brought a big bonus – to Europe. It is now a safe bet that the European Union will not break up anytime soon. But Brittany? Place your bets. We’re going for a ride.

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