Brexit has proved an “aberration that has weakened and isolated the UK”, the EU’s single market commissioner, Thierry Breton, has said, with any concrete benefits for Britain “hard to see” and multiple downsides cruelly exposed by the pandemic.
Breton, a former French finance minister in charge of the bloc’s Covid vaccination programme, now outpacing Britain’s, said that five years after the referendum, Brexit’s promised outcomes were “far from reality”.
Brexit was “supposed to ‘take back control’ and protect UK citizens, to offer the country more economic and commercial room for manoeuvre, and to boost Britain’s global standing,” he said. “What we see is pretty much the opposite.”
British calls for more “pragmatism” on the implementation of the withdrawal agreement – particularly the Northern Ireland protocol – were odd, he said: “Pragmatism was for the negotiations. Now the deal has to be applied, in full, just as agreed. I’m sure the British made sure they could implement it before they signed it.”
On the economy, Breton said, Brexit’s reality was “tragically different” from the promise. UK GDP fell 9.9% last year against 5% in Germany, 8.3% in France and 8.9% in Italy, and, while Britain’s economy should rebound this year, “uncertainty around Brexit will clearly impact business and investor confidence long term”.
Moreover, Britain was excluded from the EU recovery plan: “If the UK was still in the EU, it would have benefited from perhaps £45bn of collective EU money … It’s hard to see how one country on its own can fare better than many, together.”
The trade deals Britain has struck so far have been mainly “rollovers of what Britain already had as an EU member, transferring the same terms and conditions”, he said, while the first all-new deal – with Australia – looked like adding 0.02% to the UK’s GDP after 15 years.
“Not that that’s surprising, since UK imports and exports with Australia are worth £14bn,” Breton said. “With the EU, they’re worth £660bn.” Meanwhile, the one deal that mattered most to UK trade – with the EU – is “in danger, because Boris Johnson cannot honour his engagements on Northern Ireland”.
Trade in goods between the UK and the EU had seen a “spectacular decline” greater than that in Britain’s trade with the rest of the world, Breton said, according to OECD data. “There were other factors, but these are clearly structural issues linked to Britain leaving the EU, not teething problems,” he said. “British business has said Brexit is now its biggest import/export challenge.”
Taking back control was not faring much better. Emigration from the UK of both skilled and unskilled workers had “increased hugely” over the course of 2020, with both Brexit and the government’s “chaotic” handling of the coronavirus contributing.
Staff shortages in many sectors, including low-paid jobs in catering, logistics and healthcare, were now becoming “increasingly evident”, with the number of vacant posts rising fast as leisure and retail outlets reopened after lockdown.
“And to that we should add the reputational problems fuelled by the far from commendable way the UK has treated some EU citizens [at the border],” Breton said. “Even the government has acknowledged the excesses of certain local authorities.”
Britain did get its inoculation campaign off to a good start, he conceded, “though that had nothing to do with Brexit”, but had since been “unable to boost production, and is dependent on the EU for over half its supply – and all its mRNA shots.”
The UK remains ahead on fully vaccinated people, but the EU is fast catching up, with several members inlcuding France and Italy now administering more doses than Britain on a seven-day average and Germany soon set to overtake the UK in total number with at least one dose.
Geopolitically, Britain looked “more and more isolated”. The EU would not “abandon our British partners, of course. But they have made their choice. My job is to defend the single market. That means helping make sure the agreements that have been negotiated and signed are respected – fully.”