For a short period, they were almost vilified as traitors. In that period after Britain voted to leave the EU, those politicians who had campaigned to remain found inside themselves being demonised as not quite British. Many quietly retired at the next election, indeed some forced to after being told firmly that their constituency parties would not be renominating them as they sided with “a foreign power”. Everybody was a eurosceptic now.
The populist eurosceptic press weren’t sure what to do with themselves. Having spent 30 years blaming a city in Belgium for all Britain’s woes, the sudden departure caused quite a psychological blow. The departure negotiations had been a source of great material, of course, but even they turned out to be less dramatic than expected. Despite some very nasty speeches in the French National Assembly, cooler heads prevailed, and an amicable trading relationship was found between Britain and the EU.
To great irony, it was the Irish, led by Sinn Fein’s minister for foreign affairs MaryLou McDonald, who put up the stoutest defence of a good deal for Britain, the Irish well aware of the importance of British trade. Indeed, the quiet but nevertheless public decision to beef up Britain’s Dublin embassy with a special EU affairs unit, to allow for the Irish to keep the British in the loop on issues of common interest, was noted by many. Opposition wags in the Dail were quick to remark that it wasn’t the first time Sinn Fein kept British intelligence in the picture.
The great liberation caused by British exit never happened. There were some savings from now defunct contributions to the EU budget, but when marked against EU regional spending in Britain, and the British contribution for access to the single market, as per Norway, the savings were modest, and certainly not the windfall eurosceptics had hinted at.
Likewise with the much ballyhooed end to Brussels redtape. When British civil servants attempted to strip out all the “unnecessary” EU regulation, they kept stumbling across laws on labelling poisons in the workplace or maternity rights that were too politically awkward to start abolishing. In short, many of the EU regulations were in fact the regulations the population of a modern industrialised state demanded of their politicians anyway. The horse, as they say, had bolted on that issue.
When British companies started finding themselves being targetted, particularly by the Irish enterprise development agencies, Whitehall got quite upset. The fact that there was now an Irish cabinet minister who made it her business to sit down with British business leaders to discuss upcoming Commission legislation within the single market, provided those companies invested in Ireland, raised hackles. It was the same with the City of London. In a joint press conference between Prime Minister Cooper and President Lagarde of France, the Frenchwoman delicately but firmly pointed out that the EU proposal to tax European pension and investment funds that went to London was, “with all due respect, none of Britain’s business. How we regulate EU capital flows is the business of EUmembers. If those decisions happen to impact non-members…”
A Gallic shrug sealed the comment.
Likewise with the inflow of immigrants which had done so much to aggravate the Tory right and its UKIP offshoot. With Britain out, the logistics of ending the freedom to work and travel proved to be much more challenging. The City of London was adamant about not loosing the cream of continental talent it attracted. Likewise, France, Spain and Ireland all had significant British populations that needed to be accomodated, and the Poles and rest of central Europe were willing to play hardball over the issue, refusing to tolerate the mass expulsion of large numbers of their citizens working in the UK. The possibility of large numbers of ex-pats living for years in France and Spain (Britain and Ireland worked out a side deal) suddenly being required to pay hefty residency and visa fees because they were no longer EU citizens became a front page issue in The Daily Mail, with that paper demanding some form of “special European passport for ex-pats”.
The Foreign Secretary, Mr Milliband, ordered by parliament to seek Britain’s fortune away from “decaying” Europe and instead in the glistening cities of Asia, found certain realities. Britain did still matter in the world, even outside the EU, but certainly not as an equal partner. Both India and China were of course eager to do business, but insisted upon the right of their citizens to travel to Britain to study, work and sell. The Chinese in particular were very firm, and so just as Britain moved to deny the Polish plumber entry, young Chinese and Indian men and women began to arrive in their hundreds of thousands to conduct business, study, inter-marry, pay taxes, require housing and healthcare and begin familes. Just as the Poles had. Within a few years, the Chinese government had begun to decry the unfairness of her citizens contributing to the UK’s coffers but not being able to vote on how they were spent. Mr Milliband vowed to give the issue serious consideration.
The fear campaign that suggested that Britain was economically doomed outside the EU proved to be nonsense. But British ministers found themselves outside the room constantly at major economic events. The EU/US Free Trade Area, and the EU/China trade pact both were conducted without British representation, but with British companies already bound to meet EU regulations with the single market now having to comply with more joint EU/US regulations for access to the Atlantic Free Trade Area. Indeed, when footage leaked from the EU/US talks of the Irish Taoiseach, Ms Power, briefing (and noting concerns from) a half dozen major British industrial and business leaders, all of whose firms had recently announced major job investments in Ireland, the British media was quick to cry foul. The Irish Department of Enterprise, on the other hand, reported a sharp spike in enquiries from major UK and US businesses to discuss the perceived Access-For-Jobs scheme.
Ten years out, it wasn’t the end of the world. Britain was still trading with the rest of Europe and the world. But the much suggested radical departure into a new British “Golden Age” just didn’t happen. Britain still had to pay attention to what commissioners and the European Parliament did, because that was the world Britain lived in. Globalisation was irreversible, and whether it was Brussels or Beijing, it wasn’t a matter of not letting other countries affect you. It was a question of shaping that effect, and that was going to happen whether inside the EU or not. Britain chose to go it alone.