After the Brexit referendum, the most-Googled question in the UK was “What does it mean to leave the European Union?” Five years later, we still don’t have the full answer.
First published in July 2021.
On June 23 2016 the UK went to the polls to decide the future of the country’s EU membership. The vote to leave the EU – decided by a slim but definite majority of 51.9% to 48.1% – ushered in major constitutional, social, economic and political upheavals, as the country sought to define exactly what Brexit would mean. Five years later, here’s what we’ve learned.
1. We know a lot more
The day after the referendum, the second most Googled question in the UK was “What is the European Union?”. The most frequent question for the search engine was: “What does it mean to leave the European Union?”.
This is not entirely surprising. Even the Brexit secretary himself, Dominic Raab, it turns out, “hadn’t quite understood” how reliant the UK’s goods trade is on crossing the English Channel. Some expectations were thus necessarily confounded. The promise on the side of a bus to use the £350 million the UK spent on the EU to fund the NHS turned out to be good advertising but bad misuse of statistics. Yet the economic apocalypse foretold by those opposing Brexit has failed to materialise, too.
What we have learned instead is a vast array of details about trade and governance we never knew we needed. From Article 50 to Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, from Henry VIII powers to GATT XXIV, from the fish we like to eat and the kind of chicken we don’t, Brexit has been a steep learning curve for us all. And not all of it in good time: underestimating Northern Ireland and the border trilemma may turn out to be one of Brexit’s biggest blind spots.
2. We are still divided
The myth of the “will of the people” has been a political linchpin of Brexit. But while the referendum result was definitive, it showed an electorate split practically down the middle. In five years, this rift between Remainers and Leavers has not dissipated. On the contrary, Brexit identities now mean more to us than party-political affiliations.
The vast majority of referendum voters have stuck to their initial vote – over four in five say they would vote the same way again. Although surveys have shown a consistent majority for Remain since 2016, this is very slight: the British public is still more or less evenly divided on the issue. This was clear even in the 2019 general election, decisively won by the Conservatives under the first past the post system, where 52% of votes were cast for (opposition) parties advocating a second referendum.
Only one issue seems to unite both sides: a general dislike of the deal that was obtained.
3. We trust a lot less
In a more complex, interconnected world, trust – in our fellow members of society, our institutions, between governments – is pivotal. Trust describes acts not yet committed but to be reckoned with: it is a vehicle for coping with the essential unpredictability of people and institutions.
If distrust in government was a major predictor of Leave voters, it also arguably fuelled discontent with parliament and the judiciary, which the Conservatives accused in their 2019 election manifesto of “thwarting the democratic decision of the British people”. Now it is Remain voters, feeling they are on the losing side, who are less satisfied with democratic standards.
Following often acrimonious negotiations, trust between the EU and the UK has also taken a hit. Both sides have told the press only this month that trust is now at an all-time low – and increasingly hinges on the good faith in the way the Brexit divorce deal, including the Northern Ireland protocol, is being implemented or challenged.
A highly complex governance structure with specialised committees, working groups, partnership councils and dispute settlement mechanisms will seek to ameliorate problems. Whether it is enough remains to be seen.
4. Brexit is far from done
Boris Johnson famously vowed to “Get Brexit Done”. While we have indeed exited the European Union, Brexit is far from over. Given the UK’s decision to leave the customs union and the single market, the trade and cooperation agreement is the thinnest of deals. It provides for duty and quota-free trade of all goods, but introduces business, industry, and Brexit observers to a rich vocabulary of non-tariff barriers, level playing field provisions, and customs red tape.
Not least due to this “disintegration shock”, there will be pressure (and incentives) to improve on the deal. Negotiations are likely to go on for years, perhaps even decades. A particular sticking point remains the Northern Ireland protocol – which Boris Johnson negotiated, signed, convinced Parliament to approve and won a general election on, yet which the UK’s chief negotiator now describes as unexpectedly unworkable. The protocol is the Brexit conundrum in a nutshell: until we reach an agreement on its implementation, Brexit will not be done.
5. Brexit will have lasting effects on both sides
In the past decade, the global financial and eurozone crises exposed the weaknesses of the EU’s economic governance; the migration crisis exposed the limits of intra-European solidarity, and the rule of law crisis in Hungary and Poland exposes its very raison d’etre as fragile.
In this context, Brexit brought on unprecedented unity among the 27 – yet also, if perhaps not sufficiently, a soul-searching: a function of longer-term dissatisfaction with the nature of the union. Having lost a key member state, the EU will need to address not only a changed internal landscape, but also redefine its complicated and not always satisfactory relationship to neighbours and partners.
On the UK side, Brexit has heralded what some have called a “constitutional moment”. We have seen an increasingly strained relationship between parliament and the executive, antagonistic relationships with devolved governments, and an ongoing discussion over the role of the courts. How the government will use its new regulatory powers may also change the shape of the British state.
As far as the future relationship between both sides is concerned, this is still being defined. Yet geographical proximity, volume of trade, the importance of the “EU orbit” and the very entrenchment of our links means the UK will not float off into the Atlantic. We will wrangle with each other, and ourselves, for some time to come.
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▫ Dr Uta Staiger, Associate Professor of European Studies, Executive Director of the European Institute, UCL.
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