The Brexit deal is not going to make the far-right disappear

Britain runs the risk of seeing through an ever more fringe and far-right lens over immigration issues

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 24: Prime Minister, Boris Johnson holds a press conference on reaching a Brexit trade deal in Downing Street on December 24, 2020 in London, England. Four and a half years after British voters elected to leave the EU, and mere days before the latest and presumably final deadline, UK and EU leaders have announced a trade deal defining the terms of the breakup. (Photo by Paul Grover - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
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For a while it seemed as if the UK might leave the EU on the worst possible terms, resulting from a "no-deal Brexit". But on Christmas Eve, Britain struck an agreement with the European Union for a free-trade agreement. A collective sigh of relief followed. But what does this new world of post-EU membership mean for the UK?

Britain is still a part of the European continent, EU membership or not. And a number of other European countries, such as Switzerland and Norway, have resisted joining the Union. But the UK is not going to be like either of them. It is the first country on the continent to have been a former member. And with that comes a great deal of baggage, which we have yet to fully appreciate and understand.

Many analysts have rightly pointed out the potential economic impacts of this rather foolhardy endeavour. Within the EU, the UK had a particularly privileged economic and political position, as compared with any other member state. There was already a perception that Britain was having its cake and eating it too.

That is now over. As a recent report from King's College London noted, we are indeed getting a Canada-style trade deal. But it is not similar to the one Canadians have with the EU. It is like the one Canadians have with the US, which operates on a completely different basis. The US is Canada's main trading partner – not the other way round. Canada is in a tremendously weaker position in any negotiation, as compared to the US for whom Canada represents a minor trade partner. This is now the UK's lot when it comes to the EU, and it will not be pretty.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on October 1, 2019 a vehicle passes an anti-Brexit pro-Irish unity billboard seen from the Dublin road in Newry, Northern Ireland.   According to a British government source a 'deal is done' on post-Brexit trade. / AFP / PAUL FAITH
A vehicle passes an anti-Brexit pro-Irish unity billboard seen from the Dublin road in Newry, Northern Ireland, October 1, 2019. AFP

But this is not just about economics. Following the Brexit referendum of 2016, I met with a notable English lecturer at the University of Cambridge. We discussed at length the future of the far-right in the UK. Indeed, this particular lecturer had been sceptical of the EU in the first place, because of his worries that the far-right was mainstreaming quite dramatically within different EU countries. He was concerned that the far-right might thus eventually negatively impact European institutions – and that would also have repercussions here in the UK.

When we met, though, we discussed the possibility that Brexit might be somehow overturned. He pointed out that if that happened, the far-right in the UK would become more radicalised, out of a sense of being cheated, which was hardly the desired outcome.

Perhaps then, Brexit has avoided this type of radicalisation. But at what cost? The Brexit deal is not going to make the far-right disappear. On the contrary, as a force in British politics, such elements may simply continue under another name, where they will have yet more currency, and far more space to go mainstream.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on June 28, 2016 a man waves both a Union flag and a European flag together on College Green outside The Houses of Parliament at an anti-Brexit protest in central London. Britain said on Thursday, December 24, 2020 an agreement had been secured on the country's future relationship with the European Union, after last-gasp talks just days before a cliff-edge deadline. / AFP / JUSTIN TALLIS
A Brexit trade agreement was struck between Britain and the EU after four years of negotiations. AFP

There is virtually no scenario where the British economy will not contract over the coming years. There will be difficult times ahead. The question then becomes, how will the British political elite on the right respond to that? Will they be honest and say this is the inevitable consequence of the choice to leave the EU? Or will they take their cue from those with even more extreme views, blaming "external forces", especially the EU, for the predicament we find ourselves in?

I suspect the latter. It has already been the case that blaming the EU, which is not responsible for the UK's political choices, is cynically used so that the UK can shirk its responsibilities. And it does not stop there. In Britain, we also run the risk of seeing an increase in anger, but through an ever more fringe and far-right lens, over immigration issues, which have already been present in large parts of the electorate for some time.

Migrants sit onboard a boat navigating in agitated waters between Sangatte and Cap Blanc-Nez (Cape White Nose), in the English Channel off the coast of northern France, as they attempt to cross the maritime borders between France and the United Kingdom on August 27, 2020. - The number of migrants crossing the English Channel -- which is 33,8 km (21 miles) at the closest point in the Straits of Dover --  in small inflatable boats has spiralled over the summer of the 2020. According to authorities in northern France some 6,200 migrants have attempted the crossing between January 1 and August 31, 2020, compared with 2,294 migrants for the whole of 2019. (Photo by Sameer Al-DOUMY / AFP)
The UK is experiencing a surge in migrants crossings, December 4, France. AFP

Where does that leave us, then? In the same place, but only worse. Already we have lacked political leadership, someone of calibre who would not respond to base populism by bending to it but by challenging it. If we had a different kind of leader, we might have averted Brexit altogether and instead helped reform the EU from within.

At the very least, the UK, under more capable leadership, could have struck a better deal, one in which we stayed within the single market. The effects of this narrow parochialism are not just about EU membership, but about preventing the empowerment of the worst parts of our society. Warding those off must continue, irrespective of Brexit.

Dr HA Hellyer, a Carnegie Endowment scholar, is a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and Cambridge University