One Big Lesson From Brexit’s First 100 Days

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What lessons can be drawn from the first 100 days of Brexit? Fewer than one might wish. The chaos of recent months underlines the difficulty, and maybe the pointlessness, of even trying to make forecasts amid such uncertainty.

For a start, the pandemic has overwhelmed the short-term results of quitting the EU. All those calculations of the effects on Britain’s growth, trade and employment have been rendered null. Thanks to Covid-19, the British economy has slumped, trade volumes have crashed, and many jobs have disappeared perhaps never to return. Moreover, adjustment to Brexit has barely even begun. Many temporary arrangements are still in place. Crucial new agreements, including deals that will shape the future of the City of London as a financial hub, have yet to be negotiated. It’ll be some time before the full legal meaning of Brexit is clear, and years after that before its enduring effects can be judged.

At the moment, the harder you look, the more such complications compound. For instance, who would’ve predicted even three months ago that the pandemic might actually accrue to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s credit? At that point, Britain’s management of the crisis vied to be among the worst in the world, with extremely high infection and death rates, and the government’s fluctuating analysis and muddled messaging only aggravating the problems. In most of the European Union, the crisis seemed to be under far more skillful management.

Then the U.K. managed the vaccine roll-out well, and the EU botched it completely. What a difference that has made. A new poll for Bloomberg shows that support for Brexit has actually grown since the referendum in 2016, with almost two-thirds of adults saying that being outside the EU helped Britain’s vaccination program. Most also say that the EU has shown hostility toward Britain during disputes over the vaccines, with only a little more than one in 10 saying the bloc has acted like a friend. If a referendum on Brexit were conducted now, the survey found, it would pass by a bigger margin than before.

Here’s another, and especially dangerous, Brexit contingency. Recent sectarian rioting in Northern Ireland has revived memories of the long conflict that preceded the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The underlying issue — avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and minimizing restrictions on trade between the province and the rest of the U.K. — is intractable, and it frequently dogged the Brexit negotiations. In the end, the matter was fudged, as it had to be. Now, as they experience the results, many of the North’s unionists are enraged. Frustration over the effects of trade checks on goods moving to Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K., together with anger and impatience induced by the pandemic, are boiling over.

It’s clear that Brexit has destabilized the Good Friday settlement, as many warned it would. The other shoe yet to drop is Scottish independence. The pro-EU Scottish National Party expects to do well in forthcoming elections, and if it does, pressure for a referendum on a Scottish exit from the U.K. (to be followed by a Scottish re-entry to the EU) will grow.

Despite all the uncertainty — and accepting that, for the foreseeable future, Brexit won’t be reversed — there’s one chief lesson that Britain and the EU should draw: It’s vital that they get past the bitterness of their split and start acting like friends. To defeat the pandemic and restore economic growth, they each need the cooperation of the other, on vaccine manufacture and distribution, on travel restrictions, and so on. And though the frictions in Northern Ireland can’t be entirely neutralized, they can be mitigated with flexibility on both sides, starting with the recognition that preserving peace should be a higher priority than stringent regulation of any economic border.

In the fullness of time, Britain — or what’s left of it — will come to recognize that Brexit was a tragic error. But this doesn’t mean that, in the meantime, the U.K. and the EU are condemned to inflict further needless harm on each other.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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