After four years of political and economic turmoil, the United Kingdom formally exited the European Union on Dec. 31, after 47 years of membership in the EU and its predecessor the European Communities. The June 2016 Brexit referendum divided Britain along racial and political lines with passionate supporters and opponents on all sides. The UK is the first and only country to formally leave the EU.
The 11-hour Brexit trade deal approved by Britain’s Parliament was celebrated by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who claimed exiting the EU was a victory for Britain’s people. But critics note that while Johnson’s deal averted tariffs in UK-EU trade for the moment, there will be millions of additional customs forms and inspections that will cost British businesses that export goods to continental Europe. Additionally, the UK’s independent Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that Brexit will cost Britain 4 percent in GDP.
Other consequences of Brexit include a still unsettled solution to border trade between Ireland, an EU member-state and Northern Ireland. And the UK’s exit from Europe has energized the Scottish independence movement that is working to schedule another referendum to leave the UK and rejoin the EU. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Kenneth Surin, professor emeritus of Critical Theory at Duke University, who takes a critical look at the consequences of the UK’s departure from the European Union.
KENNETH SURIN: (Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson) got about 43 percent of what he wanted according to informed commentators who have written about these negotiations. The EU negotiators got nearly everything they wanted. So his bragging may have fooled the less well-informed sections of the public, but no, he came up badly in this deal. There’s no doubt about that.
SCOTT HARRIS: There were many estimates given before the Brexit vote that departure from the European Union would cost the UK dearly in terms of income and businesses would suffer. What are the current estimates of the economic consequences of Brexit?
KENNETH SURIN: Well, the British government’s own statistical agency, the Office of National Statistics, ONS, says that GDP in the UK will fall by about 4 percent in the median term. And they know that’s a very serious economic decline because the British economy is of already suffering from the impact of the pandemic.
So the news is not good economically. But look, we have to put this in context, the UK has been in a protracted long, drawn out economic crisis since the collapse of the post war welfare state compromise between capital and labor. That’s the period from 1945 to the early ’70s and this compromise which enabled unions to be strong — wages to be high, etc., etc. — was definitively ended by Margaret Thatcher. And since then, the UK has really not found a way to break out of the impasses created by the ending of this agreement between capital and labor. And I think this is something that needs to be said: Being in the EU neither reduced nor worsened the nature of this crisis. Now, Brexit, although its terms and conditions have been presented as economic and political, Brexit is fundamentally about a Tori culture war.
The culture war is designed to mask a right-wing, deregulated free reign for rigged markets, etc., a neoliberal project. But in order to conceal the true nature of this neoliberal project, a culture war was designed to distract and even to con Britain subordinate classes which have been long downtrodden and understandably very angry. And these are the people who abandoned the Labor party and fell for the blandishments and the empty promises of the conservatives. So what are we to do about this culture war, which is going to be continuing? There’s no doubt about this. There’s a very stubborn nostalgia for what people “were better days and Britain had an empire, a xenophobia suspicion of foreigners, etc.” Dissatisfaction with the Tories will, I think, be driven more by the pandemic than it will by Brexit. But, you know, that’s a speculation. We would just have to see how things work out.
For more information, visit Kenneth Surin’s Counterpunch articles page at counterpunch.org/author/ksurin0990.