- The attempt to leave the EU came across a lot of legal difficulties, and Parliament was too fragmented and unable to approve the exit agreement.
- EU supporters have argued that leaving the European Union will lead to innumerable economic risks.
- The Johnson government has reformulated economic arguments about the lack of choice.
The British (some of them) are waving the flag of the United Kingdom (“Union Jack”) after Brexit became official, and government buildings are highlighted in its colors, red, white, and blue. Having opened up a radically new space for political maneuvers, the country celebrates this achievement.
Such an uplifting mood came as a surprise. After the referendum in June 2016, when those who wanted to leave the European Union won with a relatively small advantage (52% versus 48% with a turnout of 72%), Brexit turned Britain into a deeply split society. The attempt to leave the EU came across a lot of legal difficulties, and the Parliament was too fragmented and unable to approve the exit agreement. Society plunged into a serious, painful state. It began to seem to foreign observers that Britain was falling apart.
But in the general elections in December 2019, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party achieved very strong results, which many called an “impressive victory.” This was an epochal shift in the political orientation of the country. In reality, the Tories received only about 44% of the vote (with a turnout of 67%). Nevertheless, they began to convince people that the country had gone through a deep psychological transformation. Allegedly, a new consensus suddenly emerged that solved the problem.
However, if there has been a shift in public opinion, they can simply be explained by fatigue and disappointment after more than three years of discussion about Brexit. Appealing to tired voters, the Tories campaigned with a simple and clear program: “Get Brexit Done.” Behind the simplicity of this slogan is the breathtaking complexity of unanswered questions. However, the shift in public sentiment can be explained by a real desire to shake off the restrictions associated with EU membership.
For several years, EU supporters have argued that leaving the European Union will lead to innumerable economic risks, and Johnson is trying to prove that this “Project Fear” is overcome. Since the 1970s, in the British debate about Europe, those who focused on the economic benefits of integration have been opposed by those who have worried about political sovereignty and the interference of distant supranational governments in the country’s internal affairs. Thus, the problem boiled down to a confrontation between economic necessity and freedom of political choice.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was able to position herself simultaneously on both sides of this watershed. She actively campaigned for Britain to join the European Economic Community, and her government played a decisive role in the adoption of the 1986 Single European Act, which directed Europe towards a free market. Before German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived on the scene, Thatcher was the most famous supporter of the idea that economic integration “has no alternative.”
But at the same time, Thatcher constantly talked about the need for choice, and increasingly called Europe a “superstate,” which threatens to limit national sovereignty through traditional parliamentary processes. In a speech delivered in 1988 at the European College in Bruges, she rejected “collectivism and corporatism at the European level,” although she reiterated the British view that “fate is connected with Europe as a member of the Community.”
The Johnson government has reformulated economic arguments about the lack of choice. Citing the destructive and demoralizing consequences of a “fiscal austerity policy,” it promised massive public investment to transform the decadent industrial areas in the north of the country that voted for Brexit and helped Conservatives win in December. Higher spending is said to lead to social harmony because it will restore a sense of freedom of choice. As Johnson put it about Brexit, “we can kill two birds with one stone.”
Creating itself anew, Britain acts as if it is entering the world of new, attractive alternatives. Freedom of choice means that Britain is truly free. However, at some point, it will become apparent that any choice always has a negative side. Choosing one option means abandoning many others, and any choice made today can have a huge impact on many decisions that will have to be made in the future.