The UK has left the European Union. But have we, and will we, leave ‘Europe’? In narrow geographic terms, our options may be limited. But economically and culturally, much of the rhetoric surrounding Brexit implied that, free of the legal and political constraints of the EU, we could choose a very different path.
And indeed, just in the last few days, Boris Johnson has made it abundantly clear than nothing – not even a signed international Treaty – can stand in the way of our ‘freedom’ to do just that.
Both Eurosceptics hope – and some continental politicians fear – that the UK, free of the constraints of EU law, will become ‘Singapore on Thames.’
Depending on your preferences, this means slashing bureaucratic red tape, cutting taxes, and trading with all corners of the globe to increase competitiveness; or alternatively removing environmental and labour protections in a race to the bottom.
Equally, a dazzling array of options have been spelled out for foreign policy. Should ‘Global Britain’ strike new alliances, for example by joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP)?
Or, rather, return to the comfort blanket of old ones, rekindling our bonds of blood with CANZUK?
But four years on from the fateful referendum vote it is striking just how European the UK remains. It’s true that we don’t identify as Europeans: nearly 60% of Britons do not identify as European at all, compared to fewer than 40% of the French, and only 30% of Germans.
This certainly helps explain the weaker bonds tying the UK to the European project, and hence, at least indirectly, the Brexit vote.
Yet the fact we don’t think of ourselves as (continental) Europeans doesn’t mean that we behave – politically or culturally – as if we were East Asians or Australasians. The fact that most of our trade is with Europe is well known.
The same is true for travel and tourism, where Europe remains the destination of choice for Brits, accounting for more than four-fifths of our visits abroad.
Nor is there any sign that the British people, or their Government, intend to opt for a radically different economic and social model after Brexit.
In his interview with Welt am Sonntag, the then Chancellor Philip Hammond made an observation – that the UK is ‘objectively a European-style’ economy – and a threat – that ending access to European markets would oblige us to choose the route of dramatic deregulation.
The former point was accurate; but the latter was always a bluff. Instead of promising to relieve us of the dead weight of Brussels bureaucracy, as exemplified by the Working Time or the Bathing Waters Directives, the Government has promised – both to the public and to our EU neighbours – to maintain or increase environmental and labour protections.
And while the fact that the UK and the EU cannot agree on the preconditions for even a simple free trade deal might seem to illustrate our different approaches, in fact it does the opposite.
The reason the UK is not prepared to accept EU-style rules on state aids is the Government’s desire for greater flexibility to subsidise domestic industry or ‘national champions.’
In other words, we want to use our new-found freedom to become less like Singapore and Hong Kong, or indeed the UK of Thatcher, Blair and Cameron, and more like France or Germany.
And when it comes to the main functions of the state – health, pensions, education, and so on – the British state is still recognizably a European one in both size and shape.
The UK Government spends about 40% of GDP, and in Singapore, the equivalent figure is 15%. And if anything, the pandemic will increase the role of the state.
In our response to the pandemic, the UK again comes across as profoundly European. The reaction to the outbreak fell somewhere between the European extremes, while when it comes to attitudes to mask wearing or indeed our willingness to sacrifice personal liberties, we seem far closer to our European partners than to either Asian states or indeed the United States.
Like most EU countries, we’ve muddled through with policies somewhere in between Sweden and Italy, and outcomes (economic and health) that will be within the European range, albeit perhaps at the bottom end of that range.
Indeed, whilst there is no shortage of analysis bemoaning the populism of the Johnson Government, and whilst there are those on both left and right who would love nothing better than a US-style culture war in this country, it is clear that the Prime Minister has avoided going full Trump.
Number 10 has studiously kept out of raging social media storms about trans rights, while governmental responses to the Black Lives Matter protests have been distinctly muted in comparison to those over the pond.
When it comes to foreign policy, the picture is similar. For all the rhetorical hankering after closer collaboration with the US, or Canada, or Australia and New Zealand, on key issues the UK under Boris Johnson has continued to align its with its European partners.
Soon after becoming Prime Minister, in August 2019, he effectively did so over Iran, Russia, Syria and the global climate at his first G7 meeting.
So while the Brexit negotiations – necessarily – have emphasised the differences between the two sides, the reality of what Britain is suggests that, over time, we will continue to cooperate with our nearest neighbours, if only because such cooperation will be far easier with nearby like-minded states, who share similar social structures and political attitudes, than with others, driven not just by geography but by history and culture.
Yes, we will do so of our own volition, without being able to blame Brussels bureaucrats for our choices, but there seems little prospect of the UK becoming less European than it is today.
By Professors Anand Menon and Jonathan Portes. This piece was originally featured on the 25 September in Le Monde.