Britain is finally out of the European Union. Its citizens woke up on February 1 to mixed reactions that mirrored the narrow margin represented in a 51.9 per cent vote in favour of leaving the EU on June 23, 2016. While many rejoiced in a newfound sense of independence, others were left despondent for breaking away after 47 years. The reconciliation of such divergent views appears to be the biggest challenge, with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson declaring his job was to bring his country together and take it forward. “This is not an end but a beginning” — were his words, where he may have paraphrased Winston Churchill, but they are as likely to linger in history as Britons move on.
Brexit marks yet another blow to globalisation as economic nationalism triumphed, much as it has in the past few years in which strong leaders are finding ways to make populist rule legitimate. What were open borders will have to close soon. For most Britons, the painful Brexit debate was much less about economics and far more about identity. This hankering for freedom, partly premised on old glory, might have been a throwback to the heyday of the colonisers when the sun was said to never set on the British Empire. And yet it was mostly the young and those living in the country who favoured Brexit more than London.
The situation is riddled with problems as Britain left in a hurry, even before a proper deal could be struck with the EU. The negotiating positions on trade are seen to be hardening now as EU leaders are offering an icy reception to the British PM’s insistence on the UK not countenancing jurisdiction of European courts in trade. Mr Johnson is not wrong in seeking a pragmatic agreement, but the sharp deadline of December 31 looms, and a “no-deal” Brexit could be far more damaging than the all the freedom the exit has brought.
The world order has changed somewhat, including in politics. The emergence of Boris Johnson, seen as the man who “got Brexit done”, could reshape Britain’s electoral map for years to come. Given the dynamics of an American election year, it is moot whether President Donald Trump would deliver on the great trade deal he promised when the UK was dithering in multiple parliamentary votes on Brexit, to settle which the Conservative leader called a general election.
In emerging stronger as his December election gambit paid off, Mr Johnson himself will be a much wanted leader as the rest of the world, including India, senses an opportunity for trading with Britain on favourable tariff terms. Given India’s steady and durable relationship with the UK, it’s on the cards that old bonds will mean something as India tries to fill gaps even as Britain and the EU go through a tortuous negotiating process, complicated by Northern Ireland’s geographical contiguity with the Irish Republic. The hunt for a new playing field in trade will only get more intense.