A down-to-the-wire deal between the European Union and the United Kingdom averted a "hard Brexit." But that doesn't mean it won't be a difficult transition.
On Monday the British government warned of "bumpy moments" beginning Thursday night, when the accord takes effect. Bumpy could be a British understatement describing the four years since voters surprised pollsters and politicians by passing the plebiscite by a narrow margin.
That vote sparked a volatile political period that saw two Tory prime ministers — David Cameron and Theresa May — lose their posts, and for much of the economic and political world to lose some confidence in Britain's ability to protect its economy at home and project its values abroad.
After initial Brexit bumbling, current Prime Minister Boris Johnson deserves credit for delivering on his pledge to "get Brexit done." But it comes at an economic and political cost. Domestically, Brexit may pare Britain's GDP by about 4%. (This matters to Minnesota, too: In 2019, the U.K. was this state's ninth-largest export market, with $556 million in goods sold annually.)
And the GDP losses may not be just on a balance sheet, but on the balance of global power if the United Kingdom disunites internally just as it disunited from the E.U. Seccession stirrings have arisen again in Scotland. While that would require a referendum, Scots did vote to remain in the E.U. in 2016, and polls indicate that sentiment has only strengthened — just as it has across the country.
A recent high of 51% of respondents in a Nov. 12 YouGov poll that they thought Brexit was a wrong decision. Only 38% said it was the right one, which is perhaps a direct reflection of the false promises it was sold on.
Another domestic fault line is Northern Ireland. It's good news that the Good Friday Agreement that tamped down the violent sectarianism known as "The Troubles" won't be jeopardized by a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Such an outcome could have resulted in a deep rift with the incoming Biden administration, which will look to repair relationships with allies alienated by President Donald Trump. Then-candidate Trump blithely called himself "Mr. Brexit" even though the U.K.-E.U. dissolution could weaken Western political unity, too.
President-elect Joe Biden believes that a unified U.S.-European front would be a more effective fulcrum to collectively address challenges like China, whose predatory trade practices and appalling human rights abuses have gone mostly unchecked by a disunited, COVID-distracted world.
Although Brexit increases the difficulty of realigning allies, it doesn't mean that the U.S. and U.K. cannot continue their "special relationship." Indeed the threats from nation-states, transnational actors and challenges such as climate change make that kind of cooperation even more important.
This could include a U.S.-U.K. free-trade agreement that Johnson and Trump favored. But it should not be expedited or done at the expense of closer trade ties between the U.S. and E.U., especially considering the scale of the E.U. economy and the essential (if not "special") relationships with the continent's most consequential countries like Germany and France.
The last-minute accord may not be a Brexit breakthrough, but it wasn't a breakdown, either. And that's a "greater symbol of cohesiveness of the West," Julia Friedlander, deputy director of the Atlantic Council's GeoEconomics Center told an editorial writer. "Its messaging to global challengers," Friedlander added, "is that Western democracies haven't tied themselves in knots so completely that they've gone toward self-destruction."
That apt description is far from the lofty premise and promise of Brexit. But it's better than the chaos a crash from the E.U. would have caused, and avoiding the worst is about the best a weary world can hope for in 2020.