Next Thursday marks six years since Britain voted to exit the European Union. Although I was too young to vote, I was a committed supporter of leaving. And along with most of those ticking the Leave box, I hoped our exit would remove the spectre of Brussels from our politics forever.
Yet we are marking this anniversary amid headlines about the ongoing influence of the European Court of Human Rights, the government’s controversial proposals over the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Brexit agreement, and whether Labour wants to rejoin the EU’s single market or not. All of this comes, of course, after several years of bitter debate over whether we should actually leave, and what an exit would look like.
So contrary to my party’s 2019 promise, we are without a clear sense that Brexit has been done. Were my fellow Leavers and I naive that Brexit ever would be done, however? We certainly underestimated the hostility the vote would generate, and the determination of many to prevent Brexit going ahead. Then again, this is hardly surprising: a romantic faith in democracy is what fundamentally drove my Euroscepticism.
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Yet many Brexiteers were also far too naive as to how easy getting a deal would be. Many didn’t understand the technicalities of Article 50, the customs union or the single market, and assumed mutual self-interest would prevent Brussels from making an example of us. Tory incredulity over the European Court of Human Rights’s decision to block deportations to Rwanda this week, with various figures asking how it can have control over our laws after Brexit, also suggests that many do not understand that the court is not part of the EU.
Moreover, splits within the Eurosceptic coalition clouded pictures of what our Brexit should and would look like. Some, like Daniel Hannan, would have been happy for us to have remained a member of the European Economic Area or European Free Trade Association, accepting freedom of movement for the sake of the ability to do free trade deals. Many Brexit voters instead saw the priority as reducing immigration – a promise that has hardly been fulfilled.
In that sense, we were also misguided to believe that Brexit would really constitute a new departure in British politics. Whatever the intentions of Cummings et al, and whatever the promises made by leading campaigners, the institutional inertia of British politics has meant we have hardly used Brexit to diverge from the European Union. Our economic model still requires ever-growing taxes, tariffs for key industries and high levels of immigration.
This is not to say I believe Brexit was pointless, or that it should not have been delivered. The Covid vaccination programme alone highlights the benefits of shrugging off the dead head of Brussels. If the campaign to overturn the vote had succeeded, it would have permanently damaged our democracy. The nation state remains the best way of keeping politicians accountable, and the recent crisis in Ukraine has ably demonstrated the EU’s dysfunctionality.
Yet six years on, it cannot be said that Brexit removed the European Union from our political life, or that leaving has been an unalloyed success. It is worrying to think we went through so much pain to take back control and get Brexit done, only to waste the opportunity it provides.