Brexit divisions still running deep

Agreement on leaving EU prompts widespread fallout

Brexit supporters celebrate in Parliament Square, London, on Jan 31. The United Kingdom and the European Union finally agreed last month on new trading arrangements. STEPHEN CHENG/XINHUA

In January 2013, The Daily Telegraph in London published an article stating that David Cameron, the United Kingdom's prime minister at the time, "has promised to settle the European question forever with a referendum on Britain's EU membership by the end of 2017".

With this, the wheels were set in motion.

Eight years on, Brexit has transformed the landscape of politics in the United Kingdom beyond recognition, but whether the issue is settled is far less certain.

In June 2016, by a margin of 51.9 percent to 48.1 percent, the British people voted to leave the European Union, beginning the process that has dominated the national conversation ever since, to the exclusion of nearly everything else apart from the pandemic.

The result ended Cameron's career literally overnight, and its legacy consumed his successor, Theresa May. The general election gamble taken by May's successor, Boris Johnson, in December 2019 gave him a huge majority to, in the words of the slogan, Get Brexit Done.

Brexit is now done, but the fallout from it is still settling.

Rarely has the UK looked less united, with political divisions between Scotland and England hugely exacerbated, and Northern Ireland's long-term status less clear than it has been in years.

Five months before the referendum, The Daily Telegraph, widely deemed to be staunchly pro-Brexit, published an article based on Google searches titled "The British public couldn't care less about Brexit and the EU referendum".

Since the referendum, hardly a day has passed without the issue being headline news.

As a new year dawned, Brexit supporters toasted "mission accomplished", with the process completed after four and a half years.

However, the UK has left the building, but the door is not locked.

The division over Brexit is best expressed by comments made immediately after the agreement was reached.

Former Conservative Party chairman James Cleverly tweeted, "When negotiations go well, both sides claim the win."

Just two days earlier, the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier was asked by a French television station who had won, and he replied: "Nobody won. It's a lose-lose situation". European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen added, "Britain has won nothing and lost a continent."

Traffic from the EU leaves Dover, a major cross-channel port in southern England, on Jan 4. CHINA DAILY

According to analysts, identity is the fundamental issue at the heart of Brexit.

An article in the United States magazine The Atlantic stated, "The Brexit campaign was transformed from a fringe eccentricity into a mass movement by a handful of people who decided to make it into an argument about identity; now Brexit itself has created a whole new set of questions about identity".

What became the modern EU began in 1950 with the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community, aimed at ensuring that France and Germany would never go to war again. Robert Schuman, who was then the French foreign minister, suggested that pooling resources would "make war not only unthinkable, but materially impossible".

When the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, the citation stated, "The union and its forerunners have for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation … it has helped to transform most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace."

Many EU member states still bear the scars of conquest, destruction and rebuilding. To them, Europeanism is an aspiration and something to be deepened whenever possible. However, the UK, separated from mainland Europe, does not share that experience or mindset, which has been decisive in shaping attitudes.

The UK's national story, as told by the political right, is that as Europe fell in World War II, the country stood alone against tyranny, with the contribution made by the armies of the United States and Soviet Union frequently played down.

In May 2016, in another interview in The Daily Telegraph, Johnson said, "Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically … the EU is an attempt to do this by different methods."

The language and imagery of war underpinned Brexit, and included slogans such as "Taking Back Control", jingoistic newspaper headlines and debate over jurisdiction of territorial waters.

In September 2018, the UK Department for Trade and Industry even tweeted that it was supporting the restoration of a World War II Spitfire fighter plane to be used to promote the country's exports.

Critics point to the UK's treatment of the Erasmus study program as decisive proof of the country's distaste for pan-Europeanism.

According to the European Commission, the program, which was established in 1987, enabled 3.3 million students and 470,000 staff members to live and study abroad in its first 27 years.

The commission said, "Students certainly improve their foreign language skills and develop greater intercultural awareness; but they also develop soft skills, such as being able to be tolerant of different views and communicate effectively."

It added, "A third of former Erasmus students now live with a partner of a different nationality."

Despite Johnson having previously assured the UK Parliament of the country's commitment to Erasmus, as part of the Brexit deal, it has withdrawn from it, allegedly on cost grounds, a move described as "cultural vandalism" by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

In its place, the UK will introduce an alternative program called the Turing scheme, which will extend beyond Europe.

A fisherman prepares his vessel at Bridlington harbor in northeast England. London and Brussels recently reached agreement on fishing in UK waters, with a transition period of five and a half years. OLI SCARFF/AFP

A good deal?

The Brexit deal maintains tariff-and quota-free trade with the EU, but the extra paperwork involved requires 50,000 more customs officers, according to an estimate by the UK government.

For Northern Ireland to continue abiding by single market rules to avoid a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, a virtual border is required in the Irish Sea.

Outside the EU, the UK can negotiate its own trade deals. To date, many of these closely resemble those agreed when it was a EU member state.

Discussing the most high-profile deal, with Japan, Minako Morita Jaeger, from the UK Trade Policy Observatory at the University of Sussex, said it was "almost identical" to the EU's existing terms with Japan and owed a debt to that deal.

"If the UK had had to negotiate with Japan from scratch, it would not have gained the level of market access that Japan accorded to the EU," she added.

The deal little involves the UK's financial services sector, which is worth $178 billion and supports 1.1 million jobs. This is because the EU wants to see what UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak means by his country "doing things a bit differently" before deciding on the access allowed to its markets.

For years, fish have been used as bargaining chips. Under the Brexit deal, the two sides reached a compromise that will see European boats gradually transfer 25 percent of their current fishing rights to the UK fishing fleet during a transition period of five and a half years, rather than 80 percent over three years, as the government had sought.

The UK has agreed to the so-called level playing field for industry, so government support cannot be used to give British companies an unfair advantage. On immigration, the abolition of freedom of movement means EU citizens now face the same treatment in the UK as other overseas visitors. As a result, Britons' movement in the EU is now also restricted.

UK Home Secretary Priti Patel has said Brexit will make the country more secure.

However, the deal has seen the UK lose access to shared criminal intelligence data, including the Schengen Information System database.

According to a BBC report, the database was accessed about half a billion times every year by UK police, and the National Police Chiefs' Council said it was "essential for mainstream policing". However, Johnson has played down security concerns, saying, "I don't think people should have fears on that score."

The Brexit process has also resulted in a sizable pro-European lobby among former Remain supporters in the UK.

In 1971, Parliament debated for a week before voting to support the UK's membership of what was then the Common Market. Last year, it debated a four-year withdrawal process and 1,200-page document for less than one day.

Brexit has been, and may well continue to be, hugely divisive, but with the arrival of a new year, the result of the 2016 referendum has been delivered.

The Leave campaign won. Its supporters have their prize, and now it is time to open it. Nobody on either side knows exactly what lies within.

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