The UK’s Brexit dream is dead (2024)

Bonfire of EU laws

A similar dynamic has played out in issues ranging from workers’ rights to environmental protection. Threats to turn the U.K. into an offshore anarcho-capitalist paradise — occasionally used by British negotiators to threaten their EU counterparts — have in practice gone down no better in Bristol or Birmingham than they did in Brussels.

Deregulation, for many leaders of the Brexit movement, was the point of leaving the EU — and the reason the cause has such deep roots on the Thatcherite right wing of the Tory party. Margaret Thatcher herself in 1988 complained that she had not spent a decade “throwing back the frontiers of state at home” to see them reimposed by Brussels — arguably lighting the touch-paper for modern British Euroskepticism.

But efforts to scrub the U.K. statute books of EU law have also floundered. One of the most memorable videos of Rishi Sunak’s Tory leadership campaign featured a suited man feeding piles of documents marked “EU legislation” into a shredder, alongside a pledge to “review or repeal” all EU laws within Suank’s first 100 days as prime minister.

Tory members were delighted, but the idea was swiftly abandoned in office. The justification for the U-turn? “I am not an arsonist. I'm a Conservative,” said Badenoch, putting her defense to disappointed Euroskpetic MPs last year.

“It’s never been tried before, probably for good reason: no one has ever tried to unilaterally remove a core pillar of their legal system overnight,” said Reland.

The Tory manifesto still boasts of having scrubbed thousands of laws from the statute books — but fails to add that most of the deleted regulations had long ceased to actually do anything.

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“Ninety-nine percent of them are redundant — they relate to things like the 2001 foot-and-mouth crisis or the EU’s trading relations with Solomon Islands,” Reland said.

The UK’s Brexit dream is dead (1)

Some Tories still dream of the kind of line-by-line deregulation exercise originally envisaged. Conservative minister Baker said that what’s needed is “a thoroughgoing review of regulations to drive anti-competitive distortions out of the market and drive up welfare through competition and productivity.”

“I just don't see the Labour Party doing that: I think that they will just increase bureaucracy and state power, and that will further grind our country down,” he said.

Record migration levels

Other Brexit visions have also had a tendency to explode on contact with competing government priorities.

Immigration, perhaps the most prominent driver of the 2016 Brexit vote, is arguably the one area where the U.K. has genuinely overhauled its rules in a big way since leaving the EU.

Yet despite ending freedom of movement with the Continent, net migration to Britain has increased sharply in the years since Britain left. At the end of 2019 the U.K.’s Office for National Statistics recorded a net 332,000 arrivals: by 2023 this had spiked to a record high of 722,000.

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Despite virtually every politician in Britain telling voters they want fewer arrivals, competing economic pressures have pushed ministers to use their absolute control of immigration rules to quietly liberalize.

“The increase in net migration from 2019 to 2023 resulted mostly from non-EU citizens coming on work and study visas,” said Ben Brindle, a researcher at the University of Oxford's Migration Observatory.

“Universities started to recruit students overseas more actively as their financial situation deteriorated, while social care providers turned to migrant care workers to fill vacancies as poor pay and working conditions in the sector, caused by limited government funding, made it increasingly difficult to retain workers.”

Elsewhere, bold promises during the EU referendum that the U.K.’s beloved National Health Service could be resuscitated with money redirected from Brussels have also failed to deliver. OECD figures collated by the Health Foundation think tank show the U.K. still spent at least a quarter less on its health services in 2022 than France, the Netherlands and Germany.

Stephen Rocks, an economist at the Health Foundation, told POLITICO: “The U.K.’s economy is already smaller and will grow more slowly because of Brexit. Weak economic growth has been at the heart of our struggle to fund health care and other public services adequately for more than a decade.” Max Warner, a health economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, added that “NHS performance against many measures is substantially worse than in 2016-17.”

Beyond peak Brexit

It all adds up. Guy Verhofstadt, the outspoken ex-prime minister of Belgium who represented the European Parliament in talks between London and Brussels, thinks “Peak Brexit” has already been reached.

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“I think that more and more after the election we will see a growing pressure to step-by-step to go back in a direction of a more sensible approach,” he told POLITICO.

The UK’s Brexit dream is dead (2)

“I think the peak was at the moment that the hardliners in the Tory party decided to go for a hard Brexit: I don't think that you can go further than what we have now.”

For Verhofstadt, who is now president of the European Movement campaign, the Brexiteers’ biggest mistake was deciding to leave the EU’s single market.

“If you cut off your ties with your main export market you’re asking for difficulties. That was clearly said by every economist,” he said.

“I think what is already happening now will continue. Britain is back in Horizon; tomorrow maybe Erasmus, and after tomorrow the customs union, defense and so on and so on.

“And then later on maybe people will ask themselves, why are we not in there? Because we are following these rules, and maybe it’s better that we have a say about what these rules are.”

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But for Baker, now contemplating life outside government in a land far removed from his vision of Brexit Britain, the prospect of an actual return to the EU still seems far-fetched.

“The EU doesn't want us back," he said. “And they don't want to have to renegotiate the settlement that took eight years to reach.

“We could expect reasonable adjustments and improvements to the Trade and Cooperation Agreement and the Windsor Framework" — the two key post-Brexit deals Britain signed with the EU. “That would happen with any government.

“But the overall framework of our relationship with the EU, I believe, is now fixed for a generation — and I think it is magical thinking to believe otherwise.”

The UK’s Brexit dream is dead (2024)
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