he slow-motion self-immolation that is Brexit continues for the U.K. Speaking in Brussels on Monday, Michel Barnier, the senior European Union official in charge of negotiating the terms of Britain’s departure, confirmed that British banks were set to lose their so-called E.U. passport, which currently enables them to offer services throughout the twenty-eight nations in the bloc. “On financial services, U.K. voices suggest that Brexit does not mean Brexit,” Barnier said. “Brexit means Brexit, everywhere.”
As if to reinforce the point, a meeting of E.U. ministers on Monday confirmed that two big E.U. agencies that are currently headquartered in London, the European Banking Authority and the European Medicines Agency, would be moving to Paris and Amsterdam, respectively. “The twenty-seven will continue to deepen the work of those agencies, together,” Barnier said. “They will share the costs for running those agencies. Our businesses will benefit from their expertise. All of their work is firmly based on the E.U. treaties which the U.K. decided to leave.”
In the months after the Brexit vote, which took place almost a year and a half ago, “Leave” supporters used the fact that the U.K.’s economy continued to expand and create jobs to claim that the prophets of doom had been mistaken. But to those Britons who are willing to acknowledge reality, these latest developments were the latest confirmation that the consequences of the historic vote are now starting to be felt. “While not surprising, these moves mark the beginning of the jobs Brexodus,” Vince Cable, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, and a prominent opponent of Brexit, said. “Large private-sector organizations are also considering moving to Europe, and we can expect many to do so over the next few years.”
To be sure, the country’s economy hasn’t collapsed. The gross domestic product is rising, and the unemployment rate has fallen to 4.3 per cent, its lowest level since 1975. But the rate of G.D.P. growth has fallen this year, and consumer-price inflation has risen because a fall in the value of the pound has made imported goods more expensive. This has hit living standards. Earlier this month, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, an independent think tank, estimated that Brexit has already cost each British household about six hundred pounds, which is roughly eight hundred dollars. “It is almost certain that the relative deterioration in the UK economy and the accompanying fall in living standards over the past year are a consequence of the vote by the British people to leave the European Union,” Garry Young, a senior economist at the institute, wrote.
If Theresa May’s government had presented a credible path to the prosperity that it claims will accompany Britain’s departure from the E.U., the economic slowdown could perhaps be written off as an inevitable and temporary transition cost. But, of course, no such credible path has been offered. Beset by internal divisions, ministerial departures, and the hangover from a disastrous general election that saw it reduced to a minority in the House of Commons, May’s government has stumbled along, making barely any progress in negotiating the terms of Brexit, which was originally pegged for March, 2019.
In September, May announced that Britain wanted to push Brexit back two years, until 2021, and said that it would abide by all the E.U. rules during the transition period. But, even after that concession, the negotiations with Brussels remained bogged down. At the end of last week, Donald Tusk, the E.U.’s President, said that, if Britain wanted talks to begin a new trade agreement that would preserve its access to the huge European market, it would have to make concessions in a number of areas, including the settlement of Britain’s financial obligations to the E.U.; the legal protections that would be afforded E.U. citizens living in the United Kingdom; and the future of the border between Northern Ireland, which is leaving the E.U., and the Republic of Ireland, which isn’t.
In his speech on Monday, Barnier, a former foreign minister of France, appeared to broaden the E.U.’s demands, strongly hinting that, if Britain wanted a favorable trade deal, it would have to abide by European regulations in many areas, even though it would no longer be a member of the Union. “The U.K. has chosen to leave the E.U.,” Barnier said. “Does it want to stay close to the European model or does it want to gradually move away from it? The U.K.’s reply to this question will be important and even decisive, because it will shape the discussion on our future partnership and shape also the conditions for ratification of that partnership in many national parliaments and obviously in the European parliament.”
Although Barnier’s language was polite, his meaning was clear: the E.U. will not countenance Britain trying to set itself up as a haven from regulation and taxes for international companies that want to do business in Europe but don’t like being subject to oversight from Brussels. And, indeed, that is precisely the scenario that some of May’s colleagues—including Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, and Michael Gove, the environment secretary—have in mind. In their vision, post-Brexit Britain would turn into a European version of Singapore or Hong Kong during the days of British colonial rule. “We may choose to remain identical to the EU or we may embrace a vision more aligned with pro-competitive regulation,” Johnson and Gove wrote, last week, in a letter to May. “Other countries must know this choice is in our hands, and they must know it on day one.”
To give them a bit of credit, May and Philip Hammond, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, seem to grasp that Johnson and Gove are pursuing a fantasy. They understand that the E.U. won’t allow Britain to both have its cake (access to the giant E.U. market) and eat it (freedom from E.U.-style regulation). They also recognize that if companies such as Honda and Nissan no longer have free access to and from Europe for the outputs and inputs of their British factories, they will have little choice but to relocate at least some of their facilities to the Continental mainland. The same goes for big international financial institutions, such as Deutsche Bank, JPMorgan Chase, and Goldman Sachs.
So May and Hammond are still trying to pursue a so-called soft Brexit, which would preserve as much market access as possible. But, at every turn, they and their allies are being undermined and vilified by the Little Englanders and the conservative Fleet Street newspapers. Last week, the Daily Telegraph published photographs on its front page of fifteen Conservative M.P.s who have had the temerity to suggest that the parliament should have the right to sign off on the final Brexit deal. The paper labelled them “The Brexit mutineers.” Some of these M.P.s subsequently received threats.
“How can this be happening in a country known for its pragmatism?” the Oxford economist Simon Wren-Lewis asked in a blog post. How indeed? With opinion polls suggesting that most Britons, if given a chance, would now vote to remain in the E.U., a second referendum seems like a good idea. But the opposition Labour Party, for reasons of its own, has already committed to accepting the first Brexit vote. About the only people calling for a do-over are the Liberal Democrats, who have just twelve seats in the Commons, and a few figures who are even less popular, such as Tony Blair and Lloyd Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman. (In a tweet last week, Blankfein said, “So much at stake, why not make sure consensus still there?”) The country is still in the grip of Brexit madness, and, sadly, there is no relief in sight.