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Brexit and Boris Johnson's broken promises mean less independence for the U.K., not more

Millions of us feel a great sense of loss. Our divorce from the European Union will hinder the freedom of movement of people — and ideas.
Image: Anti-Brexit protesters demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament in London
An anti-Brexit demonstrator protests outside the Houses of Parliament in London on Dec. 9.Henry Nicholls / Reuters

Life for the United Kingdom outside the European Union begins Friday. This is a major moment in my nation's history and a decisive one for our place in the world — relations with the United States included. Prime Minister Boris Johnson says the move allows the U.K. to take back "control of laws and our national destiny." Those of us who voted for the U.K. to remain in the E.U. see it very differently — as a loss of freedoms, quite the opposite of what we were promised.

The British government at least now realizes it needs to bring people together within the country, if not to allow them to connect with the wider world as they once did.

It is, admittedly, a relief that a deal to govern U.K.-E.U. relations post-divorce was done at all. After talks that looked several times to be on the brink of collapse, a 1,246-page agreement was unveiled Christmas Eve, without which we would have been forced to do business with our E.U. partners on the global — and not necessarily advantageous — terms that exist between any two countries without a trade deal.

But it still leaves millions of us with a great sense of loss. The government has been happy to make the case that this will be a new era for a newly "global Britain," the idea being that, no longer part of the E.U., the U.K. can be "open, outward-looking and confident on the world stage." But that idea is less attractive — and unrealistic — to those of us who cherished what we are losing. That included the right to live, work, trade and study in 27 other countries.

It's true that the U.K. will now be able to set its own trade policy, but even Brexit enthusiasts, such as senior government minister Michael Gove, concede that there will be "some disruption" as our new relationship with our hitherto biggest trading partner — the E.U. — is forged. The broader problem is that, as many commentators have pointed out, this is believed to be the first trade negotiation in history that sought to build barriers rather than take them down.

Our coming right to "control ... our national destiny" is also supposed to include a great trans-Atlantic trade deal, which once seemed a fair prospect. President Donald Trump has spoken admiringly of Johnson, even suggesting that he's known as "Britain Trump" (although it was never clear who it was who called him that), and the economic relationship with the U.S. was accordingly expected to be magnified.

Now Trump is about to be replaced by the vice president of a former administration that Johnson once sparred with and that warned him that Britain would be at the "back of the queue" for a trade deal should it depart the E.U. The prospect of an improved U.S.-U.K. economic arrangement seems much less likely for now, especially as President-elect Joe Biden's pick for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has said it would have been in the interests of the U.S. for Britain to remain in the E.U. (He also compared Brexit to a very messy car accident.)

But the even bigger — if less concrete — issue is that of the U.K.'s place in the world. That slogan about "a global Britain" was supposed to describe a country focused on wider horizons than Europe. But the reality is the opposite.

Since the U.K. joined what was then called the European Economic Community in 1973, the barriers have been coming down in ways beyond trade. We Brits haven't had to give a second thought to traveling to other parts of Europe. We didn't need visas (we still won't for shorter stays, thankfully) and, if we got sick, could expect free health care of the kind we enjoy at home. Though many of my compatriots would bitterly disagree, I and millions of others have come to think of ourselves very much as "European" as well as British.

The rupture in these ties affects the freedom of movement of ideas, as well as people. One program in particular that I will be sorry to see go — and here, as a university lecturer, I must declare an interest — is Erasmus+, which permitted young people from the U.K. to study in Europe. Withdrawing from the program deprives young people of a huge educational and cultural opportunity. The government's cheerleaders in the right-wing press have hailed a new scheme to replace what is being lost; hopefully, they are correct in their enthusiasm.

The British government at least now realizes it needs to bring people together within the country, if not to allow them to connect with the wider world as they once did. Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the exchequer, wrote Saturday that in 2021, "we won't be Remainers or Leavers — only believers in Britain."

But by that, he presumably means believers in the current government. Yet polls suggest that 49 percent of the country thinks leaving the E.U. was a bad idea, with only 39 percent in favor.

People who felt their voices had been ignored for decades were among those who voted to change the status quo by leaving the E.U. Yet those whose wishes have been ignored by the particularly extreme form of exit from the E.U. that has transpired, and those like me who regret our loss of personal freedoms, will not go away — and we may even grow in number (younger people being much more likely than older generations to have wanted Britain to remain in the bloc).

So the question may be settled for the foreseeable future, but that does not mean settled for good. Millions here resent the fact that they have lost their freedom of movement to E.U. countries and will not forget how they lost that right.

If freedom means anything, it means the right to disagree with the direction your country is following and taking political action to change course. Whatever the government may say, we are not all believers in the direction it has chosen.

Johnson has also said the deal he struck has settled the question of Britain's relationship with Europe. If his predictions of "a really prosperous new relationship" fail to materialize — not unlikely in a world gripped by a pandemic — Johnson's critics will add that to the list of broken promises. Those who are celebrating Brexit now may come to wonder how wise it was.