Brexit and Broken Promises

Leaving the EU Without Consequences Was Always a Fantasy

British Prime Minister Theresa May holds a news conference at Downing Street in London, November 2018. Ian Volger / Pool via REUTERS

The United Kingdom embraced a political fantasy in June 2016, when a slight majority of Brexit referendum participants voted for the country to leave the European Union. This was already apparent to some at the time. Not long after the vote, for example, pro-Brexit campaigners were forced to walk back claims that leaving the EU would free up 350 million pounds a week for spending on the National Health Service—which is now facing huge staff shortages, partly as a result of the limits on immigration that Brexit was designed to reinforce. But now that the terms of the Brexit agreement have been released, the scale of that fantasy is readily apparent to all. 


Brexiteers campaigned on the prospect that the United Kingdom could retain most of the advantages of remaining in the European single market, which allows for free trade in goods and services across the continent, without paying into the EU coffers or abiding by its regulations. At the same time, they claimed, it could be negotiating free trade deals with other countries designed to advance British exports and lower the cost of its imports.

But EU officials feared that if the United Kingdom got such a deal, other countries would follow its lead, thereby posing an existential threat to the union. Neither side wanted a so-called hard Brexit, in which the United Kingdom would leave without an agreement, but a guiding principle of the EU in these negotiations became that the United Kingdom had to suffer losses if it left. And so it will.

For some time, London thought that it would have the upper hand in negotiations, since many exports flow across the English Channel from Europe, not least among them German auto parts. But the EU had the real advantage: its member states can live more easily without free access to British markets than the United Kingdom can live without European access. After all, the European nations remain part of a single market that contains almost 450 million people.

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