The tortuous ordeal of Britain’s divorce from the European Union finally came to a rather anticlimactic conclusion on January 24, 2020. Teetering from the raging pandemic on shaky ground, Britain will now have to learn to navigate the tumultuous seas of global trade, defence and foreign alliances without the backing of 27 European nations. The journey forward is difficult. Leadership suffers from a lack of confidence. There is a lot that could go wrong, but there are things to look forward too.
The aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and the resulting double-dip recession, triggered Britain’s scepticism of the European Union. But their reasons for holding a referendum for Brexit were largely entrenched in the anti-immigrant sentiments and “burdensome” economic regulations. While the new deal may assuage the fear of many Brits of “immigrants from the European countries stealing their jobs,” Britain’s quest to leave behind the troublesome and meddling economic regulations may cause a slightly bigger problem.
On a positive note, this is an opportunity for Britain to redefine its role in the global arena. International leadership is undergoing a major structural change. The United States of America has replaced their 74-year-old President with a 78 year old one although this one is far-more saner and far-less fascist. China is becoming a dangerous superpower. An increasing number of Scandinavian and European nations are formulating plans to become clean-energy spaces with zero fossil fuel usage.
Britain can choose to redefine itself. It holds a prominent position on the negotiation table when it comes to defence and trade. It has a permanent position in the defence and security tables in the form of its position in the United Nations Security Council and membership of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Britain would be chairing the G7 summit in 2021 and consequently has an opportunity to shape trade and defence policies to its advantage. However, with the current leadership and an overwhelming public distrust because of COVID-19, there is a bleak possibility of the aforementioned. Britain has also suffered from a blow to its reputation in the international arena because of its poor response to the pandemic.
Canada has not been a fan of Boris Johnson’s friendship with Donald Trump, and it would not be looked upon favourably by the Biden administration either. Considering the broken ties with the EU members, the UK better make plans for mending the bridges with these two immediate neighbours. Britain can use this time to build stronger alliances with Asian countries. India, China and now Bangladesh are becoming active participants in global trade and security. It would be beneficial for Britain to look for alternate market channels because the likelihood of the EU countries looking favourably upon trade from Britain is very low. Alternatively, trade with the EU was a major source of income for Britain, and they would need to move fast to fill the gaping hole left from Brexit. However, Boris Johnson’s cancellation of his visit to India as the chief guest for India's Republic Day celebration marks an inauspicious start to their decision to build a stronger alliance.
Calls for a united Ireland and Scottish independence have also been making waves in Britain. This has been a contentious issue for Britain for a long time. The possibility of rising waves of separatist movements in the midst of Britain’s shaky future in the global sphere is not a situation that Britain could possibly endure.
The deal signed has left Britain and the EU worse off, though it did its best to leave Britain the worst off. British citizens lost more than just their right to live and work in 27 European countries. British goods would now face tariffs and restrictions at EU borders, and the deal has not managed to finalise negotiations for foreign policy, external security and defence. Foreign investors fear an economic decline and their confidence has been an all-time low, consequently foreign investments have dropped. The only sweet spot in this deal has been Britain’s success in securing a greater portion of fishes in the UK waters.
The small traders and business owners in the UK would suffer the most. They were the worst affected by the lockdown and the COVID-19 pandemic. The Brexit deal would ensure they lose the market channels and international avenues for trade and a major chunk of their profits. While the members of the EU would too lose access to British markets, they would still have the remaining 27 member countries to satisfy themselves with. Unsurprisingly, British citizens are unhappy with the government’s inability to negotiate a profitable deal.
Another major source of income for Britain is the influx of foreign students. The year-long pandemic and now the new strain of COVID-19 has already resulted in substantial loss of revenue for the country. Universities fear that this scenario, compounded by the anti-immigrant sentiments that triggered Brexit in the first place and the on-going global recession would be the catalyst for a downward spiral of the British economy. The offer for a two-year tier-4 work visa is a step in the right direction. Hopefully, this would incentivise students from abroad, and the year 2021 would revive the revenue influx.
Britain now has to determine the path that it would take regarding the pandemic, foreign policy, security, defence and international development. It needs to formulate plans to revive the demand for domestic goods and investor confidence. The political and public dissatisfaction and a weakening social fabric of the country await the current government. The economy is slowing and the growth trajectory is moving south. The list is long. The stakes are high. Britain has more to lose than just economic prosperity. Political turmoil, a changing social fabric, and safe transitions should also be on the British government’s vision for 2021. No one would want to be in Boris Johnsons’s shoes right now, but perhaps the citizens of Britain would be more sympathetic to his plight, had he not been the orchestrator of this terrible political opera.
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