Brexit Is Fake News
You can check out of Europe, but you can never leave.
On Jan. 31, Britain finally left the European Union, three and a half rancorous years after 52 percent of Brits voted to leave the bloc in 2016. EU officials hauled down the Union Jack from official buildings. British members of the European Parliament surrendered their seats in the EU’s legislature. “Brexit is done!” tweeted former Trump National Security Advisor John Bolton, providing a standard interpretation. “Happy first full day of UK Independence.”
But Brexit is not done. Nor will it ever really happen. The whole thesis that Britain has actually left the EU is what Bolton’s former boss might call “fake news.” And so, in the days after Brexit, British newspapers’ editorial pages were full of opinion pieces about—what else?—Brexit. Opening the website of the Daily Telegraph, the United Kingdom’s main conservative newspaper, after Brexit day, four of the seven columns I read opined about Brexit. It is as though Brits themselves don’t want Brexit to end, lest their conversations revert to topics such as the queen or the weather.
But it is not just that Brits, despite their protestations to the contrary, love talking about Brexit. They have to talk about it because the process will never end. In a strictly legal sense, of course, Britain is out. But this means little. All the things that drove the United Kingdom to vote for Brexit—the need to comply with EU regulations, debates about migration, a sense that Britain is not in control of its own laws—none of these will change or go away. Neither, therefore, will Brexit.
Start with the obvious. Right now, the United Kingdom is in a transition period during which both London and Brussels agreed that almost nothing would change, except for the flag. The European Court of Justice, hated by Brexiteers for violating British sovereignty, will continue to judge U.K. law. Even migration from other EU member states will continue as before. The only real difference is that now the country will have no votes in the European Council or the European Parliament, despite agreeing to follow their rules until at least the end of the year. “Take back control!” was the slogan of the Brexiteers. But for now at least, the British have less.
In theory, the transition period could end in late 2020. But the Brexit agreement itself includes an option to extend that period for up to two years, which seems likely to be utilized. Suppose then that the United Kingdom finally leaves the transition at the end of 2022. Will it then finally take back control from the Brussels bureaucrats? Not quite.
Start with regulation. The EU forged 28 different nations (including the United Kingdom) into a single market by unifying regulations across countries, allowing businesses to sell easily in all countries. This has created a market as vast and as integrated as any except for the domestic markets of the United States and China.
Roughly half of the United Kingdom’s trade is with the European Union. The figure is slightly higher if countries such as Turkey, which is not in the EU but is in a customs union with Europe, are included. If Britain wants to trade with the EU—and it does, given the vast trade flows—it will have to agree on a set of rules governing product safety, food standards, and other regulatory measures.
For decades, British media have condemned the EU for imposing unneeded regulations, covering topics as banal as the shape of bananas. Brexiteers have promised a “bonfire of the EU laws,” as the Daily Mail put it. But British firms looking to trade with the EU are unlikely to see regulations going up in smoke. Any product that is jointly assembled in the U.K. and EU is still likely to follow EU laws. So, too, are many foreign products sold across Europe. It will be easier to follow the rules of the bigger market. (The EU’s economy is more than five times bigger than Britain’s, depending on how you calculate.) And if British firms want to sell in the EU, they will still follow Brussels’s rulebook. There are so many regulatory battles on the horizon that it may seem like Brexit never actually happened.
The same is true for trade deals. It has been three years since the British government began negotiating its own trade deals with other countries. Thus far, London has signed deals with partners, including Georgia and Jordan, that constitute only 8 percent of British trade. These deals have proved not that the United Kingdom is an independent trading nation but rather that it continues to accept EU rules. Indeed, its biggest new trade deals, including with South Korea and Norway, are openly advertised as changing nothing.
The Swiss, with whom the United Kingdom has also signed a trade deal, provide a template for what will come. Switzerland also stands outside the EU, but many Swiss firms choose to implement EU laws because it makes cross-border trade easier. Switzerland’s government, meanwhile, finds itself in nearly constant battles with the bossy Brussels bureaucrats over whether it must implement new EU rules governing the two countries’ trade. The Swiss usually put up a weak fight and then surrender. Access to EU markets is worth the humiliation of having laws dictated from Brussels.
In the three and half years since the Brexit referendum, the United Kingdom has found itself in a position of Swiss subservience but has not yet come to terms with the new reality. It is no longer a member of the EU, but it has not really left. The flag has been hauled down, but the detested regulations remain. Sovereignty will be circumscribed so long as Britain wants access to EU markets. Brexiteers will describe this as betrayal, but it is especially good news for them. They can keep blaming everything that goes wrong on Brussels. It will feel almost as if Britain never actually left.