Britain after Brexit: Desire and Reality

The Brexit transition period ended for the British on New Year’s Day 2021. For the fifth time, a British government dragged off the promise of a “global Great Britain” into a new year without keeping it. So the country is doing with Brexit like many people on New Year’s morning: Where – even this year at least some – fireworks popped off and noble resolutions were held, disillusionment followed when daylight fell. It looks a bit untidy, and projects that are too ambitious are shrinking to significantly smaller milestones.

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the transformation from an EU member state to “Global Britain” means “investing in global relationships, advocating a rule-based international order and presenting Great Britain openly and confidently on the world stage”. According to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the country will flourish as a “prosperous free trade nation” to an almost unimaginable extent.

Not much has been achieved so far. So far, the promises have been countered by the fact that the British have given up their existing access to the world’s largest free trade area – completely unnecessarily, as Brexit opponents are finding. The last-minute deal with the European Union that was tied up on Christmas Eve can prevent the worst. Still, trading is now more complicated for the British. Their dependence on the EU is significantly greater than the other way around. The British government has so far not been able to show any individual, “much more advantageous” agreements with other industrialized nations.

Great Britain has good prerequisites for asserting itself: As the fifth largest economy in the world, as the core of the 54-nation Commonwealth, and as one of the five nuclear powers with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, the country has a privileged position. It already had all of this as a member of the European Union.

2021 offers the British diplomatic opportunities

In addition, the consolidated position is based on historical advantages in many respects. The further these move into the past, the more Britain has to work out its future role in the world. The British will have several opportunities for this in 2021. In the new year they will take over the G7 presidency and thus lead the club of the largest democratic industrial nations. In this role, Great Britain would like to invite Australia, India and South Korea and give the association additional weight compared to other authoritarian economic powers – above all China. If Great Britain were to lay the foundation for a future G10, the country would have achieved a major creative act on the world stage.

In addition, Great Britain is hosting another of the most important diplomatic events of the year in November, the UN climate conference COP26 in Glasgow.

But even if Great Britain can continue to participate in the greats of world politics, its influence as a single state will be less in many areas. The country will have to align itself with other, larger economic powers: Even in the negotiations with the EU, Prime Minister Johnson had to give up all ambitions not to adhere to its labor, social and environmental standards in the future. It will be similar with other negotiating partners – and the more important the other party is, the less the British will have bargaining power.

What makes all further negotiations more difficult is that the British government has turned out to be a very unreliable partner in the negotiations with the EU. The about-face, omissions and untruths of the Prime Minister have almost become routine – and will have a signal effect for future trading partners.

Even the Brexit campaign before the decisive referendum in 2016 was based on untruths about EU funds. And for the next four and a half years, almost every deadline passed as London switched between threatening gestures and blaming Brussels. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen finally came to the conclusion that “trust is good, but the law is better” when dealing with the British government.

Johnson showed that even the written word and signature of the prime minister are no guarantee of reliability with his attempt to change the existing exit agreement unilaterally for his own benefit. All of this gives future negotiators a reason not to trust the British state. Because the best trade agreement is of no use as long as its implementation is questionable.

With the end of the Brexit transition period, the year 2021 will be a test for the British to see how serious they are about their own projects – and how ready they are to turn big words into deeds. Prime Minister Johnson will have to work hard for the British to achieve the promised »freedom« – for this he will have to present himself as a more reliable negotiating partner than he has been up to now.

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