Is Brexit really done?

Reaching a last-minute trade deal is a major achievement for the British government and the European Union. But Brexit is not over yet

epa08902825 A handout photo made available by No10 Downing Street showing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson during press conference after a Brexit deal, from the Cabinet room, in London, Britain, 24 December 2020. A historic deal on the UK's future trading and security relationship with the European Union has been agreed upon 24 December 2020, a week before the end of the Brexit transition period.  EPA/Pippa Fowles / No10 Downing Street HANDOUT The Image can not be altered in any form. HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
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During the 2019 UK election, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged to voters that he would “get Brexit done”. With Thursday’s trade deal between the UK and the European Union, Brexit, in its most immediate sense, does indeed appear to be concluded.

This agreement is not, as many leave supporters feared, “Brexit in name only”. Although few have studied all 2,000 pages of the deal, we know Britain will leave the EU’s customs union and single market, both cornerstone features of EU membership.

The very existence of the deal is an achievement. Unpicking the complex minutiae of a new relationship was deeply frustrating for both sides. Doing this in just nine months is unprecedented. Normally trade agreements of this magnitude take years. And on top of the many technical details, both parties also had to navigate the complex symbolism at the heart of the UK desire to leave.

One such example, which nearly resulted in no deal, was the right of UK fishermen to have unfettered access to British territorial waters. This was previously curtailed by EU fishing quotas, which meant that the UK could land just under half the fish in its waters. This situation was long touted by Brexiteers as an example of EU rules imposing on British sovereignty.

Many of those who wanted to remain in Europe were baffled that this largely emotional issue was becoming a sticking point with the potential to scupper an agreement. They cited facts such as the fishing industry contributing around 0.1 per cent to the UK economy. Britain’s financial services sector, which will most likely be disrupted to some degree by Brexit, makes up a much larger 7 per cent. And yet, in the final days of negotiations, a great deal more was said about the economically less valuable fishing industry.

European Union's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier holds the pages of Brexit trade deal as he attends a meeting of the Committee of the Permanent Representatives of the Governments of the Member States to the European Union (COREPER) in Brussels, Belgium December 25, 2020. Olivier Hoslet/Pool via REUTERS     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
The European Union's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier holds the 2,000-page Brexit trade deal which was reached just in time for Christmas .Reuters
Across the world, the past four years have demonstrated how much easier it is to divide people than unite them

Mr Johnson will truly conclude Brexit only when such deep symbolic splits in Britain are patched over. Getting Brexit done worked as a mantra because many voters were eager to move on from the drama of Britain’s 2016 EU referendum result, and heal the country’s divisions. Four years on, this still feels a long way off. Success in this regard could define his time in office, perhaps even more so than the huge and newer challenges he faces, such as the UK’s post-Covid-19 recovery.

Brexit is also unlikely to be done anytime soon given the global wave of anti-establishment confidence it is widely perceived to have bolstered. Its success or failure could well have an impact on the longevity of this wider trend.

Across the globe, the past four years have demonstrated how much easier it is to divide people than unite them. A disunited UK benefits none of its allies, in Europe and further afield. If Mr Johnson succeeds in the Herculean task of bringing together a fractured population, while facing unprecedented economic challenges caused by the pandemic, he will go down as one of the great prime ministers of British history. If he fails to do so – bearing in mind that he was one of the primary advocates of Brexit – he risks being labelled by some as the most damaging leader in modern British history.