Britain’s Uncertain Future After Brexit

Anti-Brexit campaigners’ placards outside the Houses of Parliament, London, Jan. 28, 2019 (Photo by Kirsty O’Connor for EMPPL PA Wire via AP Images).
Anti-Brexit campaigners’ placards outside the Houses of Parliament, London, Jan. 28, 2019 (Photo by Kirsty O’Connor for EMPPL PA Wire via AP Images).
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In July 2019, three years after British voters narrowly voted to leave the European Union in a 2016 referendum, Boris Johnson assumed the office of prime minister amid a political environment characterized by anger, turmoil and confusion. Now, as his time in office nears an end, the turmoil and confusion remain, even if the anger has faded.

Despite initial stumbles that led some observers to predict he would suffer the same dismal fate as his predecessor, Theresa May, Johnson managed to deliver on his promise to renegotiate the U.K.’s transitional withdrawal agreement with the European Union. His subsequent decisive victory in December 2019 parliamentary elections, built in part on successfully wooing traditional Labour party voters, gave Johnson the ample majority he needed to see his deal through.

Before Johnson’s triumph, Brexit had been a disaster for both of the country’s two main political parties. The referendum outcome immediately brought down the Conservative government of former Prime Minister David Cameron, who had called for the vote in the first place. His successor, May, was felled by her inability to get the transitional withdrawal agreement she negotiated with Brussels through Parliament, mainly due to opposition by extremist Brexiteers within her own Tory ranks.

For his part, Johnson achieved what May couldn’t, arriving at a transitional Brexit deal that a majority of Parliament could agree on—and then building on that majority in December 2019. But after surviving multiple scandals over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, he was finally brought down by yet another unrelated one in July. Both of Johnson’s potential successors as party leader and prime minister embrace his version of a “hard” Brexit as well as his confrontational approach to relations with the EU, though, meaning that the Tories will own the consequences of having finally delivered Brexit.

The issue was an unmitigated disaster for the opposition Labour party, which struggled under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn to find a winning position on Brexit. The December 2019 elections marked the party’s worst defeat in decades, in large part due to dissatisfaction with its lack of clarity on Brexit and also popular mistrust of Corbyn. Now Labour is seeking to rebuild under party leader Keir Starmer, who replaced Corbyn in April 2020 after having previously served as Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary. Starmer must be relishing the Tories’ current disarray, but he has yet to differentiate his own or the Labour Party’s position on relations with the EU from that of the Conservatives.

The U.K.’s future remains uncertain, and the lack of clarity has global implications. London is eager to negotiate post-Brexit trade deals, beginning with the U.S., to make sure that vital exports are not interrupted. But its leverage to do so has been seriously diminished. Meanwhile, the deal Johnson negotiated for a permanent trading relationship with the EU, which took effect Jan. 1, 2021, has proved to be as disruptive to the U.K.’s trade with its erstwhile EU partners as critics—and even some supporters—predicted. And beyond trade, questions remain over how much influence a “Global Britain” can really have in a world increasingly characterized by geopolitical competition among the great powers.

WPR has covered Brexit in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. What effect will the disruptions caused by the U.K.’s permanent trade deal with the EU have on the Tory party’s political fortunes? What will the U.K.’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU look like? And what kind of global role will the U.K. have after Brexit? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

Our Most Recent Coverage

Boris Johnson Is Gone, but London’s EU Delusions Remain

The extent to which debates in London over relations with the EU have remained fixed where they were in 2016 is remarkable. The result is a consensus that is not anchored in geopolitical and economic realities, but rather based on two strategic fallacies about the impact of European integration on the EU’s neighborhood.

Domestic Politics and ‘Global Britain’

After the 2016 referendum to leave the EU, Brexit became the new dividing line in British politics, superseding the previous left-right fault line of Tory versus Labour. Johnson’s election victory in December 2019 brought closure on whether or not Brexit would happen, but it didn’t heal those divisions. Nor does it offer any guidance for how to orient the U.K.’s foreign policy in a world increasingly characterized by geostrategic and geoeconomic competition—especially given the political upheaval in London in the ahead of Johnson’s imminent departure.

Delivering Brexit—and Living With It

During the referendum campaign in 2016, many pro-Brexit leaders downplayed the difficulties of actually delivering Brexit, from the Northern Ireland border to the economic consequences of leaving the EU, while exaggerating the ease with which the U.K. would negotiate follow-on trade deals. Now that Brexit is officially in place, they are scrambling to deal with the predictable—and predicted—disruptions it is causing in trade, as well as political relations, with the EU.

The Northern Ireland Protocol

The border between Ireland and Northern Ireland emerged as a key flashpoint in the Brexit negotiations. With both jurisdictions within the EU’s single market and customs union, there were no barriers to trade or movement. But negotiators were hamstrung over how to maintain that status quo after the U.K. withdrew from the EU. Johnson claimed to have solved that problem, but the practical impact of the so-called backstop—now that it is in effect—seems to be validating concerns that it could reignite tensions that fueled the decades-long conflict, known as The Troubles, pitting Northern Ireland’s Catholic republicans against Protestant unionists.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2019 and is regularly updated.

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