Britain has been out of the European Union for more than a month. But virtually no one in the United Kingdom has noticed any difference. There were almost no official celebrations on January 31, the day Britain ended its 47-year membership of the EU. Politicians have hardly spoken about Brexit. Day-to-day life is little changed. No queues have built up at ports and no exports have been held up by new regulations. So has Brexit changed anything?
There are two obvious and overwhelming reasons why Brexit has suddenly vanished from the news. First, because Britain is still in the so-called transition period. Until the end of this year, when a new trade deal has to be negotiated with Brussels, all the old EU rules and regulations remain the same, while the country adjusts to the proposed changes. And secondly and much more importantly, Britain, like every other EU member, is completely preoccupied by the coronavirus crisis.
The looming threat to everyone’s health and the sudden collapse of business and national confidence have dominated everything for the past month. The newly elected Conservative government is desperately trying to handle a desperate situation. An emergency budget has pumped billions of extra spending into the economy. Most of it is focused on the drastic measures needed to support the state-run National Health Service and provide money for more staff, more medical testing, more equipment and more public health information. The budget also provided huge emergency funds for those companies hit by the sudden collapse of their income – tourism, transport, small businesses, retailers and entertainment sectors. New rules were announced giving more sick pay to those who are affected. Business taxes have been suspended. The newly appointed finance minister, Rishi Sunak, announced the biggest sudden increase in spending and borrowing since the Second World War. The 10-year policy of austerity was ended almost overnight.
Almost none of this spending was related to the looming economic difficulties that will be caused by Brexit or to the measures to help Britain adapt to life outside the EU. No one has asked what the government is doing to prepare for new tariffs on exports or imports from the EU. All the worries about Britain losing its share of trade with its former partners – previously a vocal concern of British industry – seem to have disappeared, at least for now. Beating coronavirus and saving the country from economic collapse is a far bigger challenge.
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Yet the clock is ticking. Britain has only nine months to negotiate a comprehensive new trade agreement with Brussels and to adjust all the rules and regulations that were previously governed by EU membership. Trade talks have officially begun, but the coronavirus has meant that neither side has made any progress. Both the British and the European negotiators took a tough line in opening talks, which analysts say could last at least four years. But despite the threat of Britain finding no agreement by the December deadline, almost no progress has been made. Everyone is too busy with the health crisis.
In one way, the coronavirus may have already changed attitudes. The government and the public know that Britain is no longer an island – at least not politically or economically – and cannot cut itself off from Europe, especially during the current emergency. There have been extensive talks with other EU members on how to handle the crisis, and scientists and researchers have been pooling their resources. The search for a vaccine and for the best way of helping those who become ill has brought together researchers from across Europe.
The crisis has also changed the government’s rhetoric. Boris Johnson, who came to power after a nationwide campaign calling on the country to “get Brexit done”, has suddenly appeared more statesmanlike, less politically divisive, more serious and more ready to listen to the advice of experts, especially in the medical field. There have been few attacks on the opposition Labour party and more calls for national unity. It is almost as though Britain is searching for the “Blitz spirit”, which boosted unity and morale when London came under ferocious German bombing attacks during the Second World War.
The Labour party has already forgotten its previous divisions over Brexit, as it searches for a new leader in the wake of its disastrous defeat in the December general election. There have been some Labour criticisms of the new emergency budget, but most left-wingers say that the Conservative government is doing what Labour has long been calling for – ending economic austerity and borrowing money to get the country going again. But so far, few politicians have paid any attention to the arguments over Brexit which so divided the country for three years until December.
Of course, when the coronavirus crisis begins to pass – which may not be until at least June or July – the race to find a new trade agreement with Brussels will become urgent. But there seems to be little mood now for further confrontation with the EU. Britain has achieved what it voted for – an exit from the EU. It is in no mood now to continue to widen the gap with the rest of the European Union.
For ordinary people, Brexit may also have little obvious impact. The questions affecting millions of EU citizens still living in Britain seem to have been resolved: almost all of them will be allowed to stay. There will be new rules limiting the entry of immigrants from the EU and other countries. But the government has also realised that these immigrants are vital if Britain is to rebuild its economy after the paralysis caused by coronavirus. Thousands of doctors, nurses and health staff from the EU are already working in Britain and more will be needed. Thousands of agricultural workers arrive from the EU and elsewhere each summer to help bring in the harvest and will still be needed. A shortage of skilled workers in many fields means that British industry would be hurt by any drastic curbs on immigration.
Britain has, so far, been less affected by coronavirus than Italy, Spain or France. But this has nothing to do with membership of the EU and is probably because Britain began testing more rigorously at the start of the epidemic. And Britain has taken a gentler line than many of its neighbours, not shutting schools or universities as this might cause other economic problems and would not necessarily halt the spread of the disease. None of this is linked to membership of the EU, however – and so far no one has yet tried to turn the coronavirus into a political argument to justify Brexit.
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Later in the year, when the main health crisis has passed, the government will have to turn its attention again to the tough negotiations with Brussels. But Boris Johnson’s attitudes may have softened. He will be less ideological in his approach, as he knows that his sober behaviour over coronavirus has won him much more respect from the public than he enjoyed last year.
Maybe Britain’s politics will become less confrontational and less divisive. For those who have been wearied by the arguments over Brexit, this will be one important benefit from the national emergency. Indeed, a kinder, gentler politics may emerge across the Western world. Even Donald Trump is beginning to show signs of leadership. But without doubt, 2020 will be the toughest year that Britain or any of its former partners in the European Union have faced for more than a generation.