If recession doesn’t force a Brexit rethink then nothing will – The Irish Times

The controversy prompted by media reports that the British government was contemplating a new relationship with the EU based on the Swiss model indicates that at least some leading figures in Westminster are beginning to question the disastrous hard Brexit engineered by Boris Johnson.

While prime minister Rishi Sunak was forced to issue a quick denial that a new relationship involving the adoption of EU rules was being considered, it seems the media speculation emanated from Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt or somebody close to him.

Of course the Brexiteers of the European Research Group sprang into action, condemning any move to closer relations with the EU. Nigel Farage entered the fray to say he would come back into frontline politics and the Daily Mail thundered “Don’t Betray us on Brexit”.

While a Swiss style arrangement may be a non-flyer it is beginning to dawn on people at all levels of British society that Brexit has been a large contributing factor to the recession which is tightening its grip on the country and a full debate on the topic is long overdue.

It seems that the British people are ahead of their political leaders in coming to terms with the fact that the form of Brexit delivered by Boris Johnson, and maybe even the decision to leave the EU itself, was a mistake.

The most recent UK poll on the issue published last week revealed 57 per cent of respondents thought Brexit was a mistake. Polling guru Prof John Curtice remarked that this represented a significant shift from the 2016 referendum when almost 52 per cent of the British electorate voted to leave the EU.

The public mood has clearly been influenced by the deteriorating state of the British economy. While there is little prospect of a rethink about the decision to leave the EU for the foreseeable future the dawning realization that Brexit is making the people of the country poorer should eventually impact on the political system.

Official figures about the state of the British economy are bleak. The UK economy is going into recession and is forecast to shrink next year by 1.4 per cent. While the German economy is also forecast to shrink the fall is expected to be much smaller and not last nearly as long.

The difficulty the Sunak government will face in any attempt to reset the trading relationship was illustrated by the furious reaction of right-wing Tories and their media cheerleaders

Most of the economies in the EU are forecast to grow next year, despite the consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the resulting inflation. The European Commission is forecasting that Ireland will have the highest growth rate of all. While this should not give any grounds for complacency the outlook for this country is a stark contrast to that of our neighbors in the UK.

In the wake of the Brexit referendum in June 2016 it was widely believed that this country would suffer almost as much as the UK from the decision to leave the EU. So far nothing of the kind has happened with Ireland continuing to enjoy strong growth partly because of continuing unfettered access to the UK as well as the EU market.

This is because the UK has not introduced the standard customs procedures for EU imports because of the lack of staff to implement them and the inevitable delays and further economic damage that would result from their application. It means that British businesses find themselves in the absurd position of having to follow tedious customs procedures for exports to the EU while Ireland and other EU members can send goods into the UK without hindrance.

The implementation period for controls on EU imports to the UK has been pushed back a number of times and the latest deadline is the end of next year. That is one of the reasons that at least some people in the British system are looking at ways of mitigating the damage the current system is doing.

The difficulty the Sunak government will face in any attempt to reset the trading relationship was illustrated by the furious reaction of right-wing Tories and their media cheerleaders. Another bout of dissent in the Conservative Party is the last thing the prime minister needs given the myriad of problems he already faces.

Labor leader Keir Starmer has been every bit as keen as the Conservative leadership to ignore the damage the hard Brexit has done to the UK economy. He seems more intent on winning back voters in red wall constituencies than facing up to the need for a change of policy in the national interest.

While there is an assumption that once in power Starmer will recalibrate the UK’s relationship with Europe the fact that he has publicly ruled out a return to the single market or customs union means that will not be easy to achieve, even if leading people in his party want it.

The two biggest parties in the UK failed their people by not insisting on a proper debate during the 2016 referendum campaign and then by allowing a minority in the House of Commons to manipulate the country into the hardest possible Brexit. If the current deteriorating state of the UK doesn’t prompt a rethink at the highest level it is difficult to see what will.

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