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Thursday, February 15, 2024

4 years on, what has Brexit done for the UK?

The end of January marks the start of full border checks for imports from EU nations, in what economist Julian Jessop says will have a 'pretty small' effect while Brexit's benefits in making free trade deals remain

As Britain marks the fourth anniversary of its departure from the EU, a spectrum of perspectives come out on Brexit’s impacts and implications, ranging from tempered optimism to deep-seated concern.

Anadolu delved into conversations with experts and everyday Brits to capture the nuanced sentiments surrounding this historic milestone for the country in what would have been a half century in the bloc had it not departed on Jan. 31, 2020.

In an interview, the former head of the Brexit Unit at the Institute of Economic Affairs in London, Julian Jessop, offered a hopeful, yet cautious, take on Brexit’s long-term prospects.

Read more: UK PM forgets Brexit happened

Acknowledging its initial blows to the UK economy, he pointed to challenges in trade dynamics and diminished business investment.

“I’m actually an optimist about the long-term impact of Brexit. But even I recognize that the initial impact on the economy has been negative in two ways in particular one is, of course, it’s become harder to do trade with our biggest single trading partner, the rest of Europe,” he said.

“So our trade performance has been weaker than it would otherwise have been. But on top of that, business investment has been lower than it would otherwise have been as well,” explained Jessop.

According to him, the uncertainties surrounding new trading arrangements cast a shadow over economic performance as businesses grapple with adjustments and hesitation.

Customs Union would come at ‘significant cost’

On the impending implementation of full border checks for imports from the bloc at the end of this month, Jessop downplayed their expected effect, which he argued would be “pretty small.”

Jessop also addressed the possibility of the UK rejoining the Customs Union as part of its post-Brexit strategy.

Read more: US, UK fail to agree on post-Brexit trade deal

Doing so is not only unlikely to reduce border frictions in a particularly significant way, it would also restrict the UK’s ability to negotiate independent trade deals with other countries, thus coming at a significant cost.

“There are essentially two parts of European membership: the single market and the Customs Union,” Jessop said. “Joining the Customs Union might help in some ways, but it would come at a significant cost in terms of making free trade deals a lot harder.”

Legal complexities and Northern Ireland’s quandary

Alexander Turk, a professor of law at King’s College London, shed light on the intricate legal ramifications of Brexit, emphasizing the hurried nature of treaty negotiations and unresolved issues within trade agreements.

Key among these concerns is the dilemma surrounding Northern Ireland, where the imperative to preserve the absence of a hard border clashes with the region’s status as part of the UK.

While recent developments offer glimmers of progress with Brussels under a deal dubbed the Windsor Framework, possible discord still looms large over Northern Ireland, casting a shadowing over the UK-EU relationship.

According to Turk, the eruption of conflict in Ukraine has underscored the need for Britain and the EU to collaborate on security issues and navigate the complicated matter of sanctions on Russia.

However, he said that while strides have been made in security cooperation, trade remains a contentious arena, especially for UK companies grappling with supply chain disruptions and regulatory hurdles.

Turk highlighted the plight of small and medium-sized enterprises as they bear the brunt of complex rules governing tariff-free access to the EU market.

For these businesses, understanding and complying with regulatory frameworks pose significant challenges, amplifying costs and impeding smooth operations.

According to Turk, the delicate balance between regulatory autonomy and market access underscores the inherent trade-offs facing the UK as it navigates its post-Brexit identity.

While aligning with EU standards may facilitate trade, this comes at the cost of relinquishing control over regulatory frameworks — a conundrum emblematic of the broader Brexit discourse.

“This is a trade-off. The closer you have the relationship with the EU, the less autonomy,” he said, noting that one of the main reasons that the UK wanted to leave the bloc for was to “re-assert autonomy over its own laws.”

“But if you want to have smooth access, the EU will actually say, ‘Well then you’re going to have to comply with our procedures and processes.’ So, you will inevitably give up regulatory autonomy.

“There is a balance to be struck between how much regulatory autonomy you want and need and how smooth the access is going to be,” he explained.

‘Brexit cut off our legs’

But for globetrotters like Magdelana Willams, a 75-year-old Londoner, Brexit has come signify poignant disappointment in the direction the country has taken.

For her, departure from the EU severed cherished ties and ushered in economic hardships, while sentiments of nostalgia echo for a bygone era of prosperity and unity.

“That’s a little bit like, say, walking without legs. Brexit has cut off our legs. Why not put them back again, rather than try and walk without legs?” she said.

“So, it has become a very different country from what I fell in love with when I came here 1970. Now, for the general population, we are poorer. The economy has gone down by 4% GDP,” Williams added, pointing to rising prices in basic goods and utilities like food, electricity, and medicine.

Williams came to Britain at a young age as a “child refugee from communist Hungary,” where she was born. She has lived in England for 52 years, as well as in Austria, and retired from the Foreign Office in 2016.

“My brother lives in Vienna with a British passport, a sister has an Austrian passport, and would you believe it? After 52 years in England, she had to apply for permission to stay on with her children and grandchildren.”