The Brexit Trap: How the UK Became A Prisoner of Its Own Mistake
Six years after the vote to leave the EU, Brexit continues to haunt our national politics, writes Hardeep Matharu
In this preview of our upcoming December print edition, Byline Times’ editor Hardeep investigates why the Brexit debate so deeply affects our politics, even though many of our politicians remain too scared to talk about it.
On the top floor of a building a stone’s throw away from the European Parliament sits a grey plinth with a half-open red velvet box on top. Inside is a square of red and white coloured fabric secured with red ribbon. Our flag. But not just any flag – it’s the Union Jack that flew outside the Committee of the Regions, alongside all the other member states, and which was removed at 8pm on 31 January 2020.
Casket-like and strangely inviting, the folded ensign is memorialised funereally within the box.
After being taken down, it made its way to the House of European History in Brussels, home to an exhaustive exhibition charting the development of the continent and the project now at its heart, the EU. From the myth of Europa to the Enlightenment, two world wars, the fall of the Berlin Wall and modern European integration, it seeks to explain why the EU exists – a story in which Britain is always uncomfortably at the margin.
Six years on from the EU Referendum, public sentiment towards Brexit appears to be shifting. More people are expressing regret at voting to leave. The detrimental impact of the hard exit we ended up with is being raised by experts and finally being put under the spotlight by the media. But politicians of various stripes remain unwilling to engage with its realities.
An open casket invites us to face what we have lost and come to terms with the grief. But open caskets, common in both Europe and the US, are very rare at British funerals.
How are we burying this historic – perhaps tragic – moment in our history? And what are the consequences for Britain's understanding of itself?
The Brexit Trap
“It’s a tragedy within the Tory party that the whole country has to pay for” is how Annette Dittert describes Britain’s Brexit saga.
Four Conservative prime ministers have “imploded because they cannot solve the Europe problem” and Rishi Sunak may well end up coming to the same sticky end.
“Looking into the numbers, Sunak will see he cannot solve the problem of the British economy if he doesn't align British laws more with the EU, but he's too weak to do that,” she says. “I think Sunak knows he would need to do the exact opposite of what he is forced to do now to get growth.”
It’s complicated, according to the German journalist, by the “really tricky inherited internal contradiction and tension within the party” Sunak must grapple with. There are the “ERG right-wing populist Tories, who basically are dictating the tone”. Then there are the “Trussites who say we need growth”. The problem is “growth and the ERG form of Brexit exclude each other”.
For Dittert, the hard Brexit we have ended up with, and the political climate it has all created, is “like the original sin”. With both Sunak and Labour unable to confront its consequences, she believes the country has trapped itself.
“It's impossible to not open this box, if you want to really move on in this country,” she says. “You have to start cleaning up the mess before you can solve the problems that have stemmed from it. It's true that the current problems do not all stem from Brexit, but a considerable part have – and it's not over yet… It goes on and on, unless you stop and say ‘this was all nonsense and we have to start again’ – which is impossible for them to do, right? It seems impossible.”
Dittert, senior correspondent and bureau chief at ARD London, believes “rational, efficient and professional government” cannot happen “as long as this original sin, and the gaslighting that came with it and the inner contradictions of Brexit, aren't clearly put on the table and discussed”.
That Starmer has “doubled-down” on not challenging Brexit is “really depressing”. She cites a YouGov poll last month that showed one in five who voted to leave now think it was the wrong decision. “They have no party they can vote for anymore,” she observes.
“People know Starmer knows that Brexit has not been the best idea in the world… it is simply not a good idea to cut yourself off from the biggest market in Europe while not having any other ideas of what you want to do…. All these trade deals that have been done so far have been ‘cut, copy and paste’ deals or even detrimental to British farmers or fishermen. I expected more. This is just more populism now from Labour. Also, it's a high price that the country has to pay for this tactic… you cannot really solve a problem when you don't acknowledge it.”
“There is no way out” if Starmer follows this path, Dittert says. “If he goes into an election saying he will make Brexit work – which isn't possible – he won’t have the mandate to change that position. That means the country is trapped even longer.”
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