Five years after the thunderclap of the Brexit referendum, the divorce is consummated. But the divisions remain sharp and the profound changes induced are only beginning to be felt in a context blurred by the pandemic.
52% of Britons in favor of leaving the United Kingdom, 48% for staying in the European bloc: the result of the referendum of June 23, 2016 had caused a shock wave, within the country and among its allies in Europe and beyond.
After several postponements and more than three years of political psychodrama, the United Kingdom finally cast off on February 1, 2020, turning its back on almost five decades of integration.
A departure followed on January 1, at the end of a transition period and a painfully negotiated trade agreement, a final exit from the customs union and the European single market.
Since the start of the year, trade between former partners has fallen. And the United Kingdom has yet to taste the benefits of an “independent” country with renewed prestige on the international scene, as the Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a great Brexit champion, promised.
On the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the vote, the head of government highlighted the advances allowed according to him by “the capital decision” to leave the EU: toughening of immigration, success of the anti-Covid vaccination campaign , new trade agreements …
“Now that we are recovering from the pandemic, we will seize the full potential of our regained sovereignty,” he said.
In the meantime, the exit from the EU has further cracked the unity of the country, the separatists in power in Scotland, Europhiles, seeing it as a new opportunity to advance their fight for independence, a way for them to join again the EU.
Also for the first time in several generations, the British no longer enjoy free access to the continent – and vice versa: the free movement of people has ended, which will be felt especially once the strict restrictions on travel are lifted. international due to the pandemic.
If the divorce is now fully implemented, the British are still wondering about its effects. A sign of the lingering divide, a poll released Wednesday by the Savanta ComRes institute estimates that 51% of Britons would vote to stay in the EU if the vote took place now and 49% to leave.
“The impact of Brexit is not yet being felt because we were too monopolized, like the rest of the world, by the Covid”, estimates Diane Willis, a lecturer interviewed by AFP in the streets of Edinburgh, the Scottish capital. “I think the devil is in the details, and the details are not coming out yet.”
In Boston, a pro-Brexit city in the north-east of England, Stephen Clark, a musician in his sixties, believes that “whatever happens, whether it is good or bad”, it is “better to have our destiny in hand “.
Deepen the political link
However, Brexit does not mean that all ties are severed between the former partners.
In the UK, some 5.4 million EU nationals have applied to continue to reside there and retain the same rights to work and access social security. Much more than the 3.4 million that the British government expected.
This induces a “massive” demographic change, according to Jonathan Portes, professor of economics at King’s College London, with “long-term social, cultural, political consequences, long, long after Brexit and the end of free movement. people”.
Beyond people, Brussels and London will have to deepen their political link, according to an expert, even if their relations are poisoned by the implementation of the part of the Brexit agreement which provides for special customs provisions now de facto Northern Ireland in the European customs union.
The Northern Irish Unionists, attached to the British crown, feel betrayed by this text justified by the need to preserve peace in the British province after three decades of bloody “Troubles”, avoiding the erection of a new physical border with the neighboring Republic of Ireland, a member of the EU.
“We are going to have to sit down with the member states and start thinking about how we can collaborate more broadly, not in the context of trade, but to make our political relationship work”, in order to respond to common global threats, Anand emphasizes. Menon, director of the UK think tank in a Changing Europe.