The beginning of the new year saw the United Kingdom complete its divorce from the European Union to the sound of Big Ben striking 11 p.m. in London on 31 December 2020. It marked the UK officially leaving the bloc’s single market and customs regime more than four years after the country voted for Brexit.
Half a decade of the British cohabitating with their Continental cousins has now ended, launching the UK on a path of its own making, free from EU laws, able to strike trade agreements with other countries around the world, and reshape its economy, society and governance structures.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, an early convert to the Brexit cause, said it was an “amazing moment for the country” in his New Year’s message. “We have our freedom in our hands, and it is up to us to make the most of it.”
So, what next? Ignoring the opinion on the fringes ~ whether of isolationists or of those plump for a no-borders Europe ~ it can safely be said that otherwise intelligent people who went from opposing Brexit to frothing at the mouth at the alleged insularity of the British people for voting the country down the path of impending economic disaster by choosing Leave in the 2016 Brexit referendum still don’t get it.
It was not the will of bigoted Little Englanders but that of a majority of the British people cutting across ideologies and identities to quit the EU’s structures in favour of reiterating the supremacy of the nation-state. The main argument of Team Johnson despite occasional discordant noises from within the Conservatives has always been that Brexit provided an opportunity for the UK to “take back control” over law-making.
All of this is not to say, of course, that economics will not play a vital role as Britain negotiates choppy waters in the world’s oceans it once ruled. Mr Johnson wants to make the UK “a science superpower,” pioneering developments in biosciences, artificial intelligence, and battery and wind power technology to create millions of highskilled jobs for the future.
Then there is his government’s single-minded determination to strike Free Trade Agreements with countries big and small across the globe. Dealing with the threat of tariffs from the EU if Britain distorts ‘fair conditions’ for businesses will be a challenge for London but not an insurmountable one. It may well choose to rewrite the terms of the trade agreement with Brussels, as the Brexit accord explicitly allows, especially to secure a vital agreement on financial services which are a key component of the British economy.
It’s not going to be all strawberries and cream, naturally ~ in the near term, practical challenges abound. But the big takeaway remains that the finalisation of the divorce has settled the question of Britain’s relationship with Europe which has dominated and disrupted its politics for decades.