Four and a half years after the momentous vote in June 2016, Brexit is finally and fully accomplished with a U.K.–EU trade deal that sailed through Parliament 521 to 73.
The economic uncertainty about the United Kingdom’s “future relationship” with the nascent super-state is finished. The bottom line is that the U.K. will continue trading relatively freely with the European Union, avoiding the economic disruption that would come by falling back on WTO rules in a disorderly exit. Trade will be done through the mechanism of the new trade agreement with agreed-upon provisions for regulations and retaliatory tariffs. Like all sovereign nations, the U.K. can now go about making its own trading arrangements in the world, while keeping faith with its existing covenants.
The sometimes-excruciating political turmoil that issued from the Brexit vote is also at an end. On inspection the balance of that turmoil — the uncertain votes in the House of Commons, the interference of the House of Lords, and even a usurpation by the supreme court — was due to internal divisions and weakness in the Tory Party, which Prime Minister Theresa May was unable to change or overcome. Boris Johnson’s general-election triumph a year ago gave his government the necessary mandate to finish the job.
A major factor in getting a decent trade deal from the EU was Johnson’s willingness to walk away from the negotiating table. As late as December 21, Johnson told Ursula von der Leyen, president of the EU Commission, “I cannot sign this treaty, Ursula, I can’t do something that is not in my country’s interests.” With Johnson, for the first time, EU negotiators understood they were dealing with a leader who had a mandate and the political talent to tell them “no.” In the end, both sides said “yes.”
The hysteria that accompanied resistance to Brexit is vanquished. Polite opinion denounced Brexit as an irrational act of national self-harm. The campaign against Brexit before and after the vote predicted imminent economic calamity, leaving the country permanently poorer (former chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne). The United Kingdom could lose access to vital medicines and pharmaceutical companies, and would take a step backward in science (Vox). Trade would stop, and ships would be halted in the ports, while food meant for Britons rotted. The City of London’s place as a world financial capital would be destroyed. Outside the European Union, it would be rash to assume that the United Kingdom would avoid another European War (Prime Minister David Cameron). The Guardian will surely keep us updated on whether its 2019 predictions of post-Brexit “chip shortages,” pogroms against Poles, and mass starvation come about.
In the end, the make-or-break question wasn’t about starvation or war, but the number of years that EU fisherman could remain in the waters around Britain. Why? Because the continuation of liberal trade arrangements between the United Kingdom and the European Union makes sense as a matter of economics and practical politics. Europe benefits from funding scientific research in the United Kingdom, which it will continue to do. Onions can and will still be sent from Belgium to Scotland. Mercedes still wants to sell cars to rich French bankers in England, who in turn want to continue doing their financial work in the City of London, which is free of French regulators and has more attractions than Dublin or Frankfurt.
The illusion that the European Union is an inevitable and irresistible future has been put to rest. The United Kingdom is now free of the burdensome political project of “more Europe.” That means the United Kingdom is not subject to the European Court of Justice, an institution founded (in part) by Nazi jurists such as Hans Peter Ipsen, which privileged “ever closer union” above democracy and the rule of law. It is not subject to a Commission led by political failures, recently dispatched from office by democratic verdicts in their own nations. The United Kingdom is free of its financial contributions, which fund the sprawling eurocrat bureaucracy and which pay for the suppression of political dissent in recalcitrant member states.
Brexit was difficult and treacherous. And, its proponents should be honest that it cost more than a few fish. It revealed stark divisions in British life, and aggravated fissures within the Union itself. But now as a free, sovereign, and independent power, the Johnson government is in a better position to repair those divisions, and the people of the United Kingdom are in a better position to hold to account the authorities that govern them.
Sovereignty and democracy go together in the modern world. Self-government is not over, and never should be.