On 1 February 2020, Britain ceased to be a member of the European Union and left the organisation for good. The sky didn’t fall, trees didn’t die, a famine didn’t strike the nation, and shortages of commodities were not reported, despite the doom and gloom scenarios that had been preached by some politicians and media after the original vote to leave.
However, the celebrations by thousands of leave voters, thrilled that their goal of exiting the European Union had finally been achieved after the Brexit vote in June 2016, may be premature. It took more than three-and-a-half years for Britain to exit the EU after years of domestic feuds, postponements, and apparently endless negotiations with the European Commission over the state of relations between the United Kingdom and the European Union.
Britain is in uncharted waters after the official exit from the European Union, the country having yet to sign any major economic deals with main trading partners such as the European Union and the United States. From early indications, these deals will be accompanied by hard negotiations, especially from the EU. The US, despite the enthusiasm of US President Donald Trump for a major deal with the United Kingdom, has announced stringent positions concerning products sold to the UK and their pricing, including pharmaceuticals.
The US has demanded that the British National Health Service pay higher prices for drugs imported from US pharmaceutical corporations, for example, and the UK will likely have to accept certain exporting practices from the US, including on the export of chlorinated chicken. This procedure aims to provide protection against bacteria, but it is not accepted as standard by the EU.
The potential slowdown of the Chinese economy as a result of the spread of the coronavirus also does not spell immediate potential for Sino-British economic cooperation. However, despite the ferocity of the spread of this virus, the Chinese state has endured much worse calamities in its 5,000-year history, and it is likely to overcome this hurdle, too, which will be good news for trade.
British companies are tasked with exploring untapped markets, and there may be no better untapped market than the African one. The United Kingdom organised the UK-Africa Investment Summit in London in January as a result, and at this summit numerous African heads of government met with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson with a view to turning the African continent into a potential long-term partner for Britain. Positive economic signs from the African countries, including Egypt, may be exactly what the British economy needs in order to face the turbulent economic positions of its traditional partners, including the countries of the EU, which have seen near-recession numbers in terms of growth, almost nearing zero in 2019.
However, the British will have to contend with a ferocious competitor in the shape of China for the African market. Chinese bilateral trade with Africa reached $209 billion in 2019 compared to the UK’s $48 billion. The Chinese are providing their African partners with long-term investment and loans along with cheaper products that Britain will have a hard time contending with. But the potential for the British economy in Africa is still likely to be huge, especially in industries where Britain excels such as gas and oil exploration, heavy industry and clean-energy and transportation projects.
In the post-Brexit era, the British government will not be able to afford to treat Africa as just another option as it has done for decades, but instead it will need to see the African countries as necessary partners in filling the economic gap created by Brexit.
Moreover, the British will need to do their utmost to secure a trade deal with the European Union, especially as this has been the country’s biggest trading partner for decades. Trade with the EU provided the foundations for the re-establishment of the British economy after World War II, and without a suitable deal the United Kingdom’s biggest trade partner could turn into its greatest competitor.
Economic woes aside, there is also the question of Scottish independence, which is likely to dominate the scene in the upcoming weeks and months. Scenes of Scottish MEPs in the European Parliament in tears after having to bid farewell to their European counterparts were prevalent in the media on 1 February, and the Scottish National Party (SNP) led by Scottish first Minister Nicola Sturgeon is adamant in demanding that the Scots be given a second independence referendum from the UK after the first one in 2015 failed to deliver the independence vote wanted by the SNP.
Unlike the former position of the European Union on Scottish independence from the UK, this time round there is likely to be more European enthusiasm for Scotland leaving the UK and joining the EU as a separate country. This position was hinted at in a BBC interview with former president of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy last September when he said that the EU would consider a Scottish application for EU membership “very seriously.” This position has been a welcome boost for the SNP leadership, which believes that staying within the EU was a key factor in the Scottish people’s voting to remain part of the UK in 2015.
The situation has changed dramatically since then, and the Scottish nationalists will likely capitalise on the Brexit issue and the welcoming vibes from European politicians to turn a potential second referendum on independence into a successful one. There is no reason for celebration at what could turn into a historical blunder by the UK as a result, especially by the likes of the former leader of the UK Independence Party Nigel Farage who has displayed less than dignified behaviour over Brexit, which he deems as a glorious moment in British history.
The clock is ticking for British politicians to try to use the country’s new potential to remedy the expected avalanche of new challenges facing the British nation. Promises of the “greatness” awaiting it after leaving the EU are not enough when these have yet to be turned into action. Johnson’s steps towards signing trade deals with the African countries, the US, China and other global partners are just first steps in controlling the situation. Other challenges include the exodus of international corporations from Britain and the potential shortage of foreign investment, and they must be faced immediately if the country is to survive this critical moment in its history.
At no other time in modern British history since World War II has the country faced the kind of challenges that it faces today, and these will require strong leadership if encouraging results are to be found in a short space of time.
The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.