Oxford For Europe
24 December 2021
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After months of vacuous and pointless negotiations, and an insane refusal to extend the transition period, the Trade and Co-operation Agreement was signed a year ago today. Is it really only a year?
The year 2021 is not a year we will easily forget, however much we might wish to. It will have been bookended by coronavirus surges and, in all likelihood, by lockdowns. In between, history has been made in so many ways, and for all the wrong reasons. This was the year Boris Johnson “made Brexit happen“. He was leading a government which did all of its power to ensure that Brexit happened to a country that was totally unprepared. Remember just a year ago to the day? Too many people swallowed a narrative that it would be okay not to extend the transition period, despite the demands of the pandemic, and that it would be okay to allow only one week between the massively complex Trade and Co-operation Agreement on Christmas eve last, and its implementation. When in history has such a thing ever happened before?
Taking these inauspicious circumstances into account should we be surprised that January 2021 was a shock? Despite having 4 1/2 years to adapt to the reality of Brexit, for most ordinary people it was still possible to be in denial about it, to believe the government rhetoric that nothing would change for the worse and therefore no preparation was required. Remember how the rhetoric changed overnight to one whereby it was up to the public and to companies to prepare, and if they failed to do so the consequences would be their own fault? What more blatant gaslighting can you imagine?
2021, after all this, was the first time that for ordinary people the effects of Brexit started to impact on their lives. Some impacted only on minorities, such as the residents of Kent, fisherfolk, farmers, market gardeners, exporters, importers, haulage companies, those working in the NHS and care sector, scientists, professionals providing services in the EU, the list goes on. For those who choose to spend time on the continent, it is all too obvious that “a year in Provence” has had to be renamed “three months in Provence”. For students or indeed universities, who had thought about availing of the Erasmus programme, it will have come as a shock that our political masters abruptly pulled the UK out of it having promised not to. And of course all travellers will have become aware of the return of roaming charges and of the need to stand in the longer queues at EU immigration.
All these groups have reason to feel a sense of betrayal and bereavement. Although individually they may be minorities, between them they cover a very large cross-section of the population. The much bigger impacts on the economy, the collapse in international trade and the strangulation of the service sector, may take time to come to the attention of the man or woman in the street. January 1st, when under the ‘WTO rules’ much discussed by the Leave side, the UK is required, after a delay, to impose import controls, may ring further shocks.
However, there are other impact that will already have been felt by very nearly everyone. The rising prices, the reduced choice on the shelves, the volatility of energy costs, the petrol queues, gone for now but leaving a sense of instability and vulnerability. For me, and no doubt for many others, the last few weeks have brought a realisation, in itself trivial but highly symbolic, that the cost of sending a Christmas card to Ireland is now the same as that of sending it to Australia. And many families will for the first time be sitting down to an imported Christmas turkey.
I will not try to enumerate the many other examples of harm. Look instead at the ‘Davis Downside Dossier’, which has now reached no. 448 and counting.
When ministers try to pooh-pooh all these things, or to say that they are a result of Covid rather than Brexit, or that they are ‘teething problems’, they undermine their own credibility just as much as when they are caught with their fingers in the till, or when they try to pervert the course of justice over Parliamentary standards, or when they are caught out lying about lockdown breaches at the heart of government. All of this, and much more, has happened in the last year.
I think genuinely that many of us on the remain side of the argument hoped against hope that we had been wrong, that somehow Brexit could be made, in Keir Starmer’s words, “to work“. And of course the fact that it has manifestly failed to do so reflects in part that it has been introduced by a government which is outstandingly inept and maliciously inflexible.
However, the reality is that even the most enlightened government would’ve struggled. It would’ve recognised that a successful Brexit was always going to be an impossibility, and doubly so against the background of the problems of Northern Ireland, which cannot simply be wished away. That hypothetical enlightened government would’ve recognised that this was a failed experiment and the only option was a change in direction.
Who knows, perhaps Lord Frost, after several years of behaving like a bull in a china shop, finally realised he was on a hiding to nothing. Perhaps it dawned on him that he must leave the stage before the strategy of blaming everybody else ceased to be plausible even to the blinkered minority. We might be thinking ‘we told you so’ but in this season of goodwill we will hold back from saying it.
It is no surprise that the latest opinion polls are showing, not only that the majority of people asked now accept the obvious truth that Brexit was a mistake, but, and this is a more difficult hurdle, that it should be undone.
It would be nice to believe that Frost’s successor, Liz Truss, with her trusty sidekick, Chris Heaton-Harris, despite their track records, would find a way to treat our EU neighbours as negotiating partners rather than as enemies to be defeated and humiliated. In a spirit of optimism, we can of course always hope. Just as we can hope that the Omicron variant, as has been speculated, proves to be less virulent then its predecessors, and that a further lockdown can be avoided. At this point, in all honesty, we cannot be sure on either of these predictions. But we can remain optimistic.
For us in Oxford for Europe it has been the year in which we tried to return to normal life. We had our first public meeting since the start of the pandemic, and we have started running street stalls again. Let’s hope that the current step backwards is a temporary blip and that before long we will be able to see each other face to face once more. Whatever happens we certainly have no intention of calling it a day. On the contrary, we will carry on: there is more reason than ever and increasing evidence that we and people like us are carrying the public with us.
I would like to wish all the members and supporters of Oxford for Europe the kind of Christmas they would wish themselves, and a happy and healthy New Year.
Please also keep an eye out for our regular series of meetings featuring brilliant speakers. Upcoming: 19th January. Details here.
European Movement petition: Let’s move on from Frost: click here to sign.
The views stated here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Oxford For Europe
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