A country belonging to the European Union

Brits who want to pelt their leaders with tomatoes have a problem. There are a lot of politicians out there who deserve it, but it’s hard to get your hands on a tomato. In many stores it is no longer available, or is being rationed. The same goes for cucumbers and peppers. The official explanation points to bad weather in southern Europe, but because there is little evidence of shortages on the continent, there is also something else going on. Brexit makes trading with the British more complicated and expensive. If there is no plentiful supply, deliveries to the UK will stop first.

Right now, there are more refugees crossing the Channel towards the UK than the other way around, but British life hasn’t quite improved in recent years. Even according to the government’s most optimistic reports, the economy is in worse shape than if the country had remained in the union. It’s a long wait for an ambulance, finding a dentist is hopeless, inflation is hitting harder than anywhere else, and there is a huge labor shortage in many sectors.

Rishi Sunak, the pragmatist who has won the confidence of the European Union

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who was himself an Leave supporter at the time, has been steadily trying to clean up the mess left by his predecessors. And last week he signed an agreement with the union on controls at Northern Ireland’s borders. Brilliant with pride, he said in Belfast, Northern Ireland was now the most privileged place in the world. It has access to both the British and European markets. This is not surprising: without Brexit it would have been an axiom. Moreover, there are still more papers to fill out than before.

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During their divorce talks, which lasted more than two years, there was baffling talk from the Brits. Stefan Derink, who, as a European civil servant, sat in the front row during the negotiations, recently wrote a disturbing book on the subject: inside the deal. Then came the frenzied experiments of former prime ministers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, with which the country slid even further into the abyss. Sunak wants to take a more realistic approach to things. Stumbling from confrontation to confrontation is interesting for the media and for the production of adrenaline and neurotransmitters in those involved, but at the same time the problems are piling up. One day the succession of battles becomes very debilitating – something the Flemish government must also come to terms with.

To influence the EU, the British will have to register as a lobbyist, meet policy makers in the corridors or go for a walk with them in the European Quarter.

In practical terms, this means that Sunak will now be close to union. To limit the economic damage, he might continue to follow almost all European rules, so that trade with the continent could be conducted without much discussion. Whenever possible, he will return to European projects. And if he concludes agreements with other countries, they will not deviate from the agreements previously concluded by the union with those same countries. In many ways, the United Kingdom has become a satellite state of the Union.

The fact that there are no longer any Britons at the table when European decisions are made is immediately the big difference with the pre-Brexit era. If they still want to make an impact, the Brits will have to register as lobbyists and deal with policymakers in the corridors or go with them in the European Brussels region. I hope they do it in a more elegant way than Moroccans or Qataris with their bags full of banknotes. If you look at the British budget figures, you will notice that there is not a lot of money left to put in the bags.

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Rarely has a country shot itself in the foot with such sincerity. A few days ago, I interviewed Johnson at a conference. the moderator asked the audience who, in retrospect, still thought Brexit was a good idea. Johnson raised his hand excitedly, then peered into the room to see that hardly anyone was following him. It is likely that the majority will oppose Britain leaving the European Union in a new referendum. However, the British will not join soon. Most of them can no longer hear the word Brexit and are trying to fend for themselves. The current generation of politicians, in the two big parties, has also burned themselves by not taking enough distance from it. Both the Conservatives and many within the Labor Party often made it appear that leaving the union could be made into something graceful. Going back to this now in public apparently required superhuman bending. Referendums are won with fairy tales, but living happily ever after, that’s another.

Hendrik Voss studies European Studies at Ghent University. His column appears every two weeks on Tuesdays.

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