Tribune. The UK has left the European Union (EU). But have we, and are we going to leave Europe? From a pure geographical point of view, our options are certainly limited. But economically and culturally, an important part of the rhetoric that accompanied Brexit implied that once freed from the legal and political constraints of the EU we could choose a very different path. And besides in the last few days, Boris Johnson has made it very clear that nothing – not even an international treaty that we have signed – can stand in the way of our “freedom” to do so.
In truth, four years after the fateful referendum of 23 June 2016, it is striking how far the UK has remained European. No doubt we do not define ourselves as Europeans. Almost 60% of Britons do not consider themselves European, while the French are less than 40% not, and the Germans less than 30%. This certainly explains the greater fragility of the links between the United Kingdom and the European project, and therefore, at least indirectly, the vote in favor of Brexit.
Just because we don’t think of ourselves as (continental) Europeans does not mean that we behave – politically or culturally – as if we are Asians or Australasians. Everyone knows that our trade is mainly done with Europe. As in tourism and travel, Europe remains the preferred destination for Britons, accounting for more than four-fifths of their stays abroad.
There is also no indication that the British people, or their government, intend to opt for a radically different social and economic model once Brexit is consummated. While still finance minister, Philip Hammond recognized in 2017 that the UK was an economy “European style”, before adding that closing its access to European markets would oblige it to embark on the path of massive deregulation.
The mirror of divergences
The first point was correct; the second, on the other hand, was never more than a bluff. Instead of promising us to unload the dead weight of the Brussels bureaucracy as illustrated by the directives on working time or the quality of bathing water, the government has promised – both to the British population and to ‘to our EU neighbors – to preserve or increase environmental protection and labor law.
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