How the British press reported on the Brexit referendum outcome a year ago. Photo: iStock
The story behind the story is sometimes more interesting for readers. Photo: iStock

When Britain unexpectedly voted to exit from the European Union exactly a year ago this Friday, it was widely believed that the shocking Brexit referendum outcome would profoundly impact the United Kingdom and the regional bloc.

One year on, in many ways, this is true. However, things have not turned out exactly as Eurosceptics hoped or Europhiles feared.

The core rhetoric of the Leave camp that won last June’s referendum by 52% to 48% was “Vote leave and take back control.” That’s why in the wake of the Brexit vote, the Daily Telegraph, one of Britain’s key pro-Brexit newspapers, described June 23, 2016 “as the day the British voted to retake control of their own country.” Such was also the view by the Daily Mail, another prominent pro-Leave paper, which painted the EU as a “divided,” “broken” and “dying” institution.

However, instead of “taking back control,” Britain seems to be losing control as it has been facing so much uncontrollable turmoil over the past year.

Though vigorously, and at times, aggressively campaigning for the UK to depart from the grouping it joined in 1973, the Leave camp did not have a plan for Brexit.

Worse, rather than work together to deliver the Brexit they yearned, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, two leading Brexiteers and allies, engaged in a bitter feud over the ruling Conservative party’s leadership and the country’s premiership following then-prime minister David Cameron’s resignation just after the Brexit plebiscite. As a result, Theresa May, a Remain campaigner (albeit a reluctant one), was chosen to lead the UK out of the EU.

Again, apart from her mantra “Brexit means Brexit” and then “no deal is better than a bad deal,” May did not have a clear, consistent and viable plan for the UK’s historic withdrawal from the 510-million-people bloc. To make things worse, just weeks before her country was scheduled to enter Brexit talks with Brussels, she decided to call a snap election and her decision dramatically backfired as she lost the slim majority her party held.

As she is now in office but not in power and can be forced out at any time and her party is struggling to form a minority government with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), it is likely that the Tory party will hold a leadership contest and the UK will have another general election before March 2019 – when the country is due to leave the EU. All this will put the whole Brexit process – and, together with it, Britain’s future – in further jeopardy.

Perhaps not since the Suez crisis more than 60 years ago has the UK been so unstable and unsure of itself

Perhaps not since the Suez crisis more than 60 years ago has the UK been so unstable and unsure of itself.

Such confusion and self-doubt was (atypically) captured by a cartoon in the pro-Brexit Telegraph on June 19 – the exact day the country formally opened talks with the EU on its departure.

In the cartoon, David Davis, a prominent Eurosceptic and the UK’s current Brexit secretary, was depicted as completely hapless and lost, surrounded by unorderly pieces of paper containing phrases hinting at major dilemmas facing the UK, such as “Queen’s Speech,” “DUP Deal,” “soft Brexit” and “hard Brexit.”

In contrast, the Telegraph drawing showed a calm and collected Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, sitting at the other side of the long table with the caption: “Whenever you’re ready, Mr Davis.”

The cartoon is illustrative of not only the British government’s hopeless lack of preparation for the Brexit talks but also its current confusion and lack of direction. The May government’s “sorry state of affairs” was also highlighted by the leading article in the Daily Telegraph on Wednesday – the day of the Queen’s Speech, which sets out the government’s Brexit-dominated legislative agenda for the next two years.

Ironically, as illustrated by the Telegraph cartoon, while the UK is in disarray following its decision to leave the EU, the latter is in a completely different shape. Instead of being weakened by Brexit, as many predicted, the EU has been strengthened by the British decision.

Gathering in Rome in March to mark the EU’s 60th anniversary, the leaders of its key institutions and its 27 remaining member states vowed to make the regional bloc “stronger and more resilient, through even greater unity.” This is because, as they firmly and rightly stated, “Unity is both a necessity and our free choice. Taken individually, we would be sidelined by global dynamics. Standing together is our best chance to influence them, and to defend our common interests and values.”

Though the UK and its Brexit were not mentioned, such a commitment was made due to – and aimed at – its decision to leave the world’s most developed regional grouping and act alone on the global stage.

More tellingly, the Brexit vote and the chaos it has caused has halted, if not stopped, anti-EU revolt in many countries. Populist and Eurosceptic parties in several EU countries, such as Austria, the Netherlands and France have suffered huge defeats in elections. Emmanuel  Macron, the ardent pro-EU centrist, and his newly-established party, La République en Marche, resoundingly won France’s presidential and legislative elections, respectively.

Economically, the EU countries are also performing better than the UK. Official EU figures show the growth for the whole of the EU – as well as the Eurozone – was 0.6% whereas Britain’s economic growth was just 0.2% in the first three months of 2017.

With consumer spending dipping, growth stalling, wages falling, costs increasing and inflation rising mainly due to uncertainty caused by Brexit, there are now real concerns that failing to achieve a deal with its closest neighbors and biggest trading partners would greatly harm the UK’s economy.

In all, while it is still too early to gauge its real impacts, judging from all that has happened over the past year and especially the political turmoil the UK is facing, it is safe to say that its Brexit is a big political and economic gamble that shows no signs of paying off. Instead, there are many signals that it could backfire, damaging Britain’s stability, security and prosperity, and weakening its role and influence in the world.

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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