OPINION: The U.K. will surely pay price for Brexit
TOKYO (The Japan News/ANN) - At 11 p.m. GMT on Jan. 31, Britain left the European Union, ending its 47 years of membership.
To mark the moment, red and blue lights evoking the colors of the United Kingdom’s flag illuminated a countdown clock projected onto the British prime minister’s residence in London. So-called Brexiteers marked Britain’s breakup with the EU with celebrations in the capital and elsewhere in the country by passionately waving Union Jack flags.
In an address broadcast shortly before the historic moment, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson praised his own political ability for bringing about his country’s departure from the EU by saying, “For many people this is an astonishing moment of hope, a moment they thought would never come.” He added that “the most important thing to say tonight is that this is not an end but a beginning.”
Beginning of hardship
Indeed, Britain’s exit from the EU is “not an end but a beginning.” Nonetheless, it is only the “beginning of hardship” for the country. The awkward smiles Johnson showed in his address indicated that he fully understood how big the “bumps in the road” he would inevitably face from now on would be.
In fact, not all Britons who took to the streets to witness the moment their country left the EU celebrated Brexit wholeheartedly.
At the same time, pro-EU Britons gathered at Parliament Square in London, hoisting blue-and-yellow EU flags. They have been saddened by their country’s separation from the bloc. Nevertheless, they hope to see Britain rejoin the union someday in the future.
In fact, anti-Brexit members command a majority in the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish parliaments. As a result, those regional assemblies voted to withhold consent on Johnson’s EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill.
Until now, it has been unusual for the central government in London to ram through a policy opposed by the three parliaments.
In Edinburgh, two Scottish government buildings were lit in blue, one of the two colors of the EU flag, at the moment Britain officially left the bloc. Outside the Scottish Parliament, bagpipers played Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” to express pro-EU people’s grief.
As such, British society is now divided into two camps, one rejoicing at Britain’s departure from the EU and the other mourning it. Recent opinion polls in the country have shown that Britons who now want their country to “remain” in the European bloc outnumber people sticking to the “leave” decision. Such survey findings notwithstanding, British society — with its traditional respect for parliamentary sovereignty, a principle of the British Constitution — appears to have calmly accepted the fact that the British Parliament voted Johnson’s Brexit deal with the EU into law.
In reality, no fundamental change occurred in Britain’s relationship with the EU at the moment its membership with the European bloc came to an official end on Jan. 31 at 11 p.m. Since that moment, Britain has entered an 11-month “transition” period, during which it is entitled to receive the privileges of EU membership as in the past, while it can no longer have any say in the bloc’s decision-making process.
During the transition period, which lasts until Dec. 31 this year, Britain will negotiate toward post-Brexit agreements, including a free trade deal, with the EU. Brussels has already signaled a harsh basic approach toward London in the upcoming negotiations — an apparent warning that the European bloc will not tolerate any “cherry-picking” attempt by the British side in transition negotiations.
As a matter of fact, the Johnson administration has been driven into a corner. If it refuses to give in to the EU’s conditions for transition negotiations, Britain will certainly experience a “no-deal” Brexit at the end of this year with the possibility that its economy will be terribly damaged.
In pursuing Brexit, Britain has envisaged the restoration of national sovereignty on the political front, while entering into a free trade agreement with the EU to ensure economically close and barrier-free ties to a maximum extent with the bloc. Its Brexit strategy is too wishful. Given that Britain has to hold negotiations with a regional bloc whose economy is nearly four times larger than the British economy, it is clearly in a disadvantageous position in transition negotiations with the EU.
A more serious reality should be pointed out. Britain is now isolated in the international community to an unprecedented extent.
First, Britain has been surrounded by the world’s “three giants,” the United States, China and the EU, only to be compelled to make one concession after another to them.
What is more, when the United States is at loggerheads with China or the EU, Britain currently cannot choose to stand absolutely shoulder to shoulder with any of the three giants. Therefore, Britain is likely to continue to be at the mercy of great power politics.
Second, Britain is entirely distancing itself from what Winston Churchill referred to as the “three circles” of the international community.
In 1948, three years after finishing his first term as British prime minister, Churchill emphasized the importance for Britain to participate in “three great circles” among the free nations. The first circle is “the British Commonwealth and Empire,” the second one is “the English-speaking world” led by the United States and the third one is “United Europe.”
Churchill and other past British prime ministers, including Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, who exerted Britain’s influence in the world, really made maximum effort to keep their nation from breaking with the “three circles.” For instance, Thatcher is known to have exerted her leadership to transform Europe into a “single market.”
Ditching ‘three circles’
However, Britain under the leadership of Johnson is turning its back on each one of the “three circles.”
While the British Commonwealth still exists, the “Empire” Churchill boasted of no longer exists. The relationship between Britain and the United States has been strained of late. The United States does not feel comfortable that Britain has made itself excessively dependent on China by deciding to allow Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei to help build its next-generation 5G mobile network. That decision is likely to have the effect of hindering British intelligence-sharing with the United States. Britain’s exit from the EU is a decisive move to bid farewell to Europe. The Johnson administration has thus effectively lost its foothold in all three circles.
As the three circles used to be the very source of Britain’s diplomatic influence, it is apparent that the country’s status in the international community will decline.
During World War II, Britain devoted itself to defending democracy and the free world. It also assumed a great deal of responsibility for establishing a liberal international order in the postwar years. In contrast, Britain has now become the envy of nationalists and populists in the rest of the world. In the European Parliament, Britain’s withdrawal from the European bloc has been praised only by members of far-right parties who are themselves known as euroskeptics.
It is inconceivable that Britain will be able to ensure its own safety and prosperity once it actually disconnects from the rest of the world. For his part, Johnson has been thrown into a dilemma between nationalism — an ideology that focuses on national sovereignty — and what has actually happened to the world — the rise of globalization and the cross-border spread of supply chains.
The current state of affairs in Britain reflects the essence of a phenomenon that has been prevailing in many parts of the world in recent years — the parallel existence of democracy that functions within the boundaries of a nation-state and the dynamics of globalization that accelerates cross-border economic activities. In other words, even when people become disgruntled about an economic slump or a rise in unemployment, such developments cannot be controlled by democracy — which is a form of national government — as they result irreversibly from the progress of globalization.
Britain has persistently paved the way to restoring national sovereignty despite knowing the risk that Brexit would cause damage to its economy, which has become highly developed thanks to globalization and Europe’s single market integration.
Brexit can be said to be a “victory won by nationalism that has been seduced by populism.” Will Britain be able to overcome the hardships ahead? The British people’s wisdom is being tested.
(Special to The Yomiuri Shimbun)
Hosoya is a professor of international politics at Keio University and the author of numerous books on British, European and Japanese politics and foreign affairs.