“Significant gaps remain to be bridged.” It was a bland diplomatic statement from the United Kingdom’s Brexit Secretary, David Frost, on November 12, coming out of negotiations with European Union representatives on trade with Northern Ireland. But it’s also a clear indication that almost a year after the U.K. formally left the EU, the reality of Brexit is still emerging. The impasse over the movement of goods into and out of Northern Ireland could provoke a trade war between London and Brussels in the coming months, but the full consequences of Brexit are already global. In September, the U.K. signed a trilateral defense pact with the United States and Australia, which is intended to confront China in the Indo-Pacific region—including through cooperation on cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing—and which triggered outrage in France, a core member of the EU. With all these and other changes, what is Brexit turning into?

Matthias Matthijs, a senior fellow for Europe at the Council on Foreign Relations and an associate professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, has written extensively about Great Britain and Brexit. In Matthijs’s view, Brexit is playing a major role not only in the U.K.’s shifting domestic politics and relations with other countries but also in reshaping how individual Britons understand themselves politically. At the same time, withdrawing from the EU has solidified the Conservative Party’s hold on power, he says, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s steadfast defense of Brexit has won over former Labour voters who support it, shifting the political balance in Britain potentially for years to come. As Matthijs sees it, greater distance from Europe will mean greater reliance on the U.K.’s special relationship with the United States—and greater effects from both the benefits the drawbacks of closer ties with Washington.


Michael Bluhm: How do people in the U.K. see the effects of Brexit in their lives now?

Matthias Matthijs: It’s an excellent question. It depends mainly on whether you voted Leave or Remain. The main political identity for most U.K. citizens is no longer Labour or Conservative but Remain or Leave. These identities have really stuck.

Leave voters tend to be older, more likely male, more likely rural. They tend to see everything that may go wrong—a supply-chain issue or goods not being available to them in the store—as due to the pandemic. Remainers—generally more urban, younger—still blame Brexit.

A typical Leave voter probably doesn’t care too much about day-to-day products from France, Germany, or Southern Europe. A typical Remainer—living in London or another big city, where there are more supply-chain problems than in smaller towns—may have gotten used to quite a few products that are now harder to get.

Bluhm: Like many other countries, the U.K. is suffering from goods shortages. To what extent are they being driven by Brexit vs. the pandemic?

Matthijs: Brexit has certainly exacerbated some of these problems. The U.K. was a very attractive market for European exporters. Brexit meant taking the U.K. out of the EU Single Market and the Customs Union, which means new borders and new barriers. Now, to export from Poland, Spain, or France to the U.K., you need to fill out customs forms. For small businesses, that’s onerous. They may even need to hire a part-time accountant to deal with the paperwork.

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