A look on Europe from Great Britain

Great Britain always wanted to be both in and out of the EU – but ultimately it belongs to Europe. By Rachel Sylvester, The Times.

London: Tower Bridge and Financial District.
London: Tower Bridge and Financial District. s4svisuals - stock.adobe.com

Britain has always been the awkward neighbour in its relationship with the rest of Europe. Like those fairground rides that push the passengers out against the walls as they spin around, there seemed to be a centrifugal force thrusting us away from Brussels as the rest of the EU whirled towards ever closer union. We wanted to be both in and out, to embrace the single market but reject the euro, to have our cake and to eat it. The channel acted as a political as well as a physical barrier, creating a sense of detachment and a foolish pride in splendid isolation. It was this drive towards insularity that resulted in the Brexit vote in the 2016 referendum, but it was always an illusion.

We are uncertain of our place in the world

Boris Johnson portrays his country in the new post-Brexit era as a global superpower that will go out into the world with buccaneering bravado. In a recent speech, setting out his parameters for the future negotiations with the EU, he said the UK would be “catalyst for free trade” leaping into the phone booth to shed the Clark Kent spectacles to “emerge with a clock flowing as the supercharged champion of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other.” Yet in order to become the supposed champions of free trade, we are turning our back on our largest trading partner. Instead striking deals around the world we are stuck in a tug of war between America and China. The truth is we are diminished and uncertain of our place in the world. It is still the case, as Dean Acheson put it in 1962 that Britain has lost an empire but it has still not found a role.

The Brexit vote was driven by emotion. The Leave campaign played on irrational fears of immigration and an anti-politics yearning to “take back control.” That was reinforced at the election last year by the weary frustration that it was time to “get Brexit done”. But now that we are out, reality will kick in. The trade-offs will slowly emerge and the harsh economic cost of leaving without a trade agreement will become increasingly clear.

Rachel Sylvester
Rachel Sylvester

The prime minister is determined to throw off the EU rules and regulations and strike a Canada-style free trade deal with Brussels even if there is a price to pay for business, farmers and consumers. If that is not possible, he is ready to leave without an agreement, with all the consequences that involves.

But the Government’s own economic impact assessment found that parts of the country would suffer a 16 per cent drop in gross domestic product if the UK left the EU without a deal. Significantly, it is the working class areas in the north and the Midlands - the very places that delivered the Conservatives their general election victory last year - that stand to lose most from this outcome. If Johnson continues to follow a path that leads to factory closures and job losses he will be punished severely when the country next goes to the polls.

It is not possible to ignore geography any more than history.

There will therefore be both political and an economic pressure to agree to maintain close links with the EU, even if that means agreeing to some regulatory alignment and sacrifice of sovereignty. Europe is still geographically the closest market for the UK, with supply chains that criss-cross the continent. It is not possible to ignore geography any more than history. Just as an emotional centrifugal force has gradually pushed us away so an economic centripetal force will slowly but surely pull us back towards the rest of Europe.

Rachel Sylvester is a political columnist at The Times. She started writing about politics in 1996 on The Daily Telegraph and The Independent on Sunday. She joined The Times in 2008 and was political journalist of the year in 2015 and 2016.

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