BY NADIA BABAR
On the 23rd of June in 2016, late in the evening, I sat in front of the television in my London flat staring at the screen in disbelief, frantically texting friends and family members about what was transpiring throughout the country. By the next morning, myself and countless others throughout the country were raging with indignation at the outcome of the EU referendum – 51.9% had voted to leave.
It’s been over four years since then, and believe me when I say that when anyone brings up Brexit, my sigh of indignation has only gotten bigger. Keeping track of all Brexit-related occurrences has been exhausting for many, and the emergence of COVID-19 has only made an already complicated situation even more dire. The following is a timeline of the most important Brexit events of the past four years.
- June 2016: The UK votes to leave the EU in 52-48 referendum. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, resigns.
- July 2016: Theresa May, Leader of the Conservative Party, is appointed Prime Minister.
- March 2017: UK triggers Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union, a provision stating that “Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.”
- June 2017: The Conservative Party loses its majority in Parliament.
- March 2018: Draft agreement is published, with entire sections highlighted and marked “unagreed upon.”
- May 2019: Theresa May steps down as Prime Minister after failing three times to pass her withdrawal agreement through Parliament.
- July 2019: Boris Johnson is appointed Prime Minister of the UK.
- December 2019: Johnson holds a general election, where the Labour Party suffers its worst defeat in 85 years, while the Tories secure an 80-seat majority in the Parliament.
- January 2020: The UK officially leaves the EU.
- Now: We are currently in a ‘transition phase’ that is meant to last until December 31, 2020.
Britain’s handling of the crisis
I don’t need to mention that the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly affected Brexit proceedings. But on the other hand, it has given the UK government the best excuse possible to ignore Brexit. It hasn’t made much difference, as the government’s handling of the pandemic has bordered on woefully incompetent. One can see the similarities in how these two monumental events were handled; the UK government’s COVID response was akin to the very type of thinking that resulted in Brexit in the first place – the type of individualistic, ‘I don’t need your help!’ rhetoric and dismissal of our EU neighbours and their strengths. Over the course of the pandemic, the UK government has repeatedly refused help or advice from other nations, especially that from the rest of the EU. This was the UK’s first major obstacle since officially leaving the EU and clearly wanted to show the rest of the world that it didn’t need to rely on the EU’s help.
They failed miserably.
Since the EU’s creation in the 1990’s, the UK has depended on it for its strong manufacturing sector, lacking one itself. This meant that during the pandemic, the UK had to rely on medical provisions guaranteed by international trade agreements, which aren’t as strong or as plentiful as they could’ve been. Other countries were hesitant to provide such assistance, especially due to the constant back and forth of the UK government. This consistent backtracking has made the UK a laughing stock. In March, the UK was slow to take the virus seriously, even though Italy was already in a state of emergency and cases were skyrocketing all over the world. At the time, Boris Johnson was still making light of the situation. Come April, Britain is one of the last countries to finally acknowledge the threat of the virus and embrace a full lockdown, which lasted until July. During these months, the initial furlough system was announced, and although it didn’t cover every UK citizen’s situation, it did provide for hundreds of thousands of people. At this point, it appeared that the British government was somewhat making up for its initial lack of fortitude. This changed as the summer rolled on, with confusing advice from the government and scandals from within the Tory cabinet. With the reopening of hospitality venues in July, the government followed up with the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme, an attempt to boost trade for the hospitality venues that had suffered massive losses from being forced to close over the summer. For a while, things seemed relatively normal. Restaurants were full to the brim and bars were booked out on the weekends. Then all of a sudden, the ‘Rule of Six’ was introduced, barring groups of more than six people from mingling in any capacity. Despite the blow this dealt to hospitality, businesses continued to operate under the new rules.
Then came the curfew at the beginning of October. Enforcing a 10pm curfew was an attempt to limit the spread of the virus, even though all it did achieve was in dealing yet another blow to late-night businesses and make getting home at 10pm a nightmare. Following this comes yet another rule — no household mixing. By this point, the British public is exasperated, because clearly none of these restrictions were working, if we kept needing to add new ones, all the while hurting small businesses?
This all culminated in another total lockdown beginning on November 5th. The government cited rising numbers across the country as their reasoning, plus an attempt to ‘save Christmas’ by driving numbers down prior to the holidays. But unlike the summer’s lockdown, schools and universities were allowed to stay open, despite the mounting evidence that a significant percentage of COVID-19 cases were attributed to those areas. The lockdown is supposed to end on December 2nd, although there are rumours it may be extended. There are even talks of a ‘reopening’ for five days of Christmas, followed by another month of lockdown.
Bearing in mind all of this, it just makes sense that other nations would be wary of committing to any trade deals when the UK can’t seem to decide on one solid course of action.
Boris Johnson’s rationale for his government’s flip-flopping and their refusal to take advice from other EU member states was that ‘what’s happening in other countries doesn’t reflect what’s happening in the UK.’ While this is obviously true, it omits the fact that what was happening in the UK was arguably much worse than in most other countries, save for a few. The UK remains the worst hit nation out of Europe, with over 50,000 deaths and nearly 1.5 million cases.
What happens now?
The British public’s faith in their government is at an all-time low. The whole world was borne witness to the UK’s pitiful handling of the pandemic, losing respect from other nations. This now makes the prospect of a mutually beneficial UK-EU trade deal even less likely than before. As of June of this year, both the UK and the EU announced that they had made little progress in their talks about future Brexit deals. The UK also stipulated that it would not seek an extension to the transition period, which will probably result in a no-deal Brexit, the repercussions of which could be potentially catastrophic. Johnson has signalled the increasing likelihood of a no-deal Brexit, especially when one considers the impact of COVID. This could also result in another shift of power. With faith in Boris Johnson dwindling, even from his own party, there has also been increasing attention focused on Sir Keir Starmer, the new leader of the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn’s successor. Johnson has even said himself that he is going to ‘get Brexit done’ and then step down from his position.
COVID-19 has only added to the problems that were already amplified because of Brexit. For example: supply chains. Any manufacturer that sources its materials from somewhere other than the UK is already faced with the challenges that Brexit poses: customs declarations, increased shipping costs, and generally losing the privileges that EU countries have regarding trade. COVID-19 only exacerbates this problem. With different countries enforcing different restrictions, there’s almost no way to tell how long a particular transaction will take, making it incredibly difficult for supply chains to maintain – well, their supplies. Not to mention the fact that businesses are going bust left, right, and centre, leaving chains to frantically fill the gaps in an attempt to stay afloat.
All of this is also a contributing factor to the heavy recession that Britain is already facing. While it seems improbable that a recession could have been avoided in its entirety (especially since the furlough system, which helped keep thousands of people safe and healthy, is one reason for the recession), the struggles that Brexit poses are on course to make it even worse. Our precarious economic position, without the support of the EU, may spiral us even further into a depression. With the second spike of COVID clearly upon us, with cases rising sporadically across the nation, the government has even less time to pay attention to Brexit dealings, making the 31st of December deadline look more and more bleak.
Compared to the atrocity of COVID-19, Brexit seems like a much lesser problem. However, it is Brexit thinking that saddled us with a government that couldn’t cope with the pandemic. Obviously, there is no way anyone could have foreseen the catastrophe that was 2020, and it is unfair to have expected the government to have the perfect response to everything that happened this year. However, the attitude that the British government has decided to adopt – one of callousness, harmful individuality, and hostility towards the international community that has supported it for decades – is only driving us towards further mistakes.