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Brexit, the Disaster No One Wants to Talk About

A U.K. flag waving in front of an E.U. flag.
Credit...Andy Rain/EPA, via Shutterstock

There’s a growing understanding in Britain that the country’s vote to quit the European Union, a decisive moment in the international rise of reactionary populism, was a grave error.

Just as critics predicted, Brexit has led to inflation, labor shortages, business closures and travel snafus. It has created supply chain problems that put the future of British car manufacturing in danger. Brexit has, in many cases, turned travel between Europe and the U.K. into a punishing ordeal, as I learned recently, spending hours in a chaotic passport control line when taking the train from Paris to London. British musicians are finding it hard to tour in Europe because of the costs and red tape associated with moving both people and equipment across borders, which Elton John called “crucifying.”

According to the U.K.’s Office for Budget and Responsibility, leaving the E.U. has shaved 4 percent off Britain’s gross domestic product. The damage to Britain’s economy, the O.B.R.’s chairman has said, is of the same “magnitude” as that from the Covid pandemic.

All this pain and hassle has created an anti-Brexit majority in Britain. According to a YouGov poll released this week, 57 percent of Britons say the country was wrong to vote to leave the E.U., and a slight majority wants to rejoin it. Even Nigel Farage, the former leader of the far-right U.K. Independence Party sometimes known as “Mr. Brexit,” told the BBC in May, “Brexit has failed.”

This mess was, of course, both predictable and predicted. That’s why I’ve been struck, visiting the U.K. this summer, by the curious political taboo against discussing how badly Brexit has gone, even among many who voted against it. Seven years ago, Brexit was an early augur of the revolt against cosmopolitanism that swept Donald Trump into power. (Trump even borrowed the “Mr. Brexit” moniker for himself.) Both enterprises — Britain’s divorce from the E.U. and Trump’s reign in the U.S. — turned out catastrophically. Both left their countries fatigued and depleted. But while America can’t stop talking about Trump, many in the U.K. can scarcely stand to think about Brexit.

“It’s so toxic,” Tobias Ellwood, a Tory lawmaker who has called on his colleagues to admit that Brexit was a mistake, told me. “People have invested so much time and pain and agony on this.” It’s like a “wound,” he said, that people want to avoid picking at. The London mayor, Sadiq Khan, one of the few Labour Party leaders eager to discuss the consequences of leaving the E.U., described an “omertà,” or vow of silence, around it. “It’s the elephant in the room,” he told me. “I’m frustrated that no one’s talking about it.”

Part of the reason that no one — or almost no one — is talking about Brexit’s consequences lies with the demographics of the Labour Party. Somewhere between a quarter and a third of Labour voters supported Brexit, and those voters are concentrated in the so-called Red Wall — working-class areas in the Midlands and Northern England that once solidly supported Labour but swung right in the 2019 election. “Those voters do not want to have a conversation about Brexit,” said Joshua Simons, the director of Labour Together, a think tank close to Labour leadership.

Sheer exhaustion also contributes to making Brexit talk unwelcome: Between the vote to leave the European Union in 2016 and the final agreement in 2020, the issue consumed British politics, and many people just want to move on. Simons argues there’s also a third factor: a sense that the results of a democratic referendum must be honored. He cites a point that a mentor of his, the political philosopher Danielle Allen, made after the 2016 vote. “In the end, in democracy, sometimes you all do crazy things together,” Simons said. “And what becomes more important is not whether the crazy thing was a good or bad thing to do. It’s that you’re doing it together.”

As someone from a far more polarized country, I found this idea somewhat foreign. If the Trumpist electorate had imposed such a costly and ultimately unpopular policy on the country, I suspect there would be a rush among Democrats to reverse it. But in the U.K., referendums — which are rare and held only to address major issues — have a political gravity that it’s hard for an outsider like me to understand.

“You’ve got to respect the referendum,” said Khan. “What you can’t have is never-endums, referendum after referendum after referendum. That disrespects the electorate.”

Still, he argues that without facing the harm that Brexit has caused, the country can’t move forward: “Unless you can diagnose what the problem is, how can there be a prognosis?” Britain is not, at least in the near term, going to rejoin the E.U. But both Khan and Ellwood argue that it can still forge closer trade and immigration ties than it has now, and perhaps eventually return to the European single market, the trade agreement encompassing the E.U. countries, Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein.

“After the next election, I can see all parties embracing the idea of rejoining the single market,” said Ellwood, adding, “I put money on it that it happens in the next five years.”

One silver lining to Brexit is that it offers a cautionary tale for the rest of Europe. After Britain voted to leave the E.U. in 2016, there’s been fear, among some who care about the European project, that France or Italy could be next. But as The Guardian reported, as of January, support for leaving the E.U. has declined in every member state for which data is available. As governments across the continent move rightward, the E.U. itself is moving in a more conservative direction, but it’s not coming apart.

“I don’t think you’re going to see other countries in the E.U. leaving the E.U. if for no other reason than because they’ve seen the impact on us,” said Khan. But there’s a larger lesson, one most Western countries seemingly have to continually relearn. Right-wing nationalist projects begin with loud, flamboyant swagger. They tend to end unspeakably.

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Posted on 22 Jul 2023 02:49 link