Britain can recover from the self-harm of Brexit

Simon Jenkins

Is this the dawn? Have we reached the glimmer of a new beginning? Rishi Sunak’s about-turn on joining the European Union’s Horizon programme is a first note of sanity in the two and a half tortured years since Britain formally left the EU. Let it not be the last. The story itself is miserable. Horizon is an £81bn continent-wide programme to give Europe’s scientific research community a critical mass to compare with that of the US or China. It acknowledges the obvious truth that advanced scientific research needs collaboration rather than competition. Britain’s universities had been leaders of the pack, and they were among Horizon’s principal beneficiaries. If anything made sense of a united Europe, it was Horizon.
Brexit was an act of sabotage. In a measure of infantile daftness, its adherents declared that here, as in all things, Britain could go it alone. Sunak’s own enslavement to the creed required him to agree, and he duly engineered a £14bn Pioneer programme with grants that were intended to replace Horizon. Many senior scientists in Britain protested the inadequacy. Sunak appeared unaware that research is as much about collaboration and scholastic exchange as it is about money.
What Sunak has not done is budge an inch on border movement. Ridiculous bureaucracy will still impede academic exchanges, conferences, student visits and simple research trips – as it stifles orchestra and theatre tours. We assume the ever xenophobic Home Office is behind the “hostile environment” that will still seek to deter scientists and indeed any academic from working in Britain. A solo researcher arriving for an extended period of work of study, per 2021 research commissioned by the Royal Society, can fork out between £3,000 and £5,000 for the privilege. As long as Brexit is administered in this way, repelling friends and associates who for decades have moved freely across the Channel, the EU will do Britain no favours.
Horizon suggests that Brexit is approaching a moment of truth. Fortress Britain is crumbling like soggy cement. Not a single statistic presents the UK’s decision to leave Europe as anything but a gross historical error. From economic growth to trade and productivity, from labour supply to immigration, every boon promised by the Brexit lobby was a lie. The Centre for European Reform estimated that at the end of 2021, the British economy was 5% smaller than it would have been had Britain not left. But the damage lay not so much in Brexit as in hard Brexit, in leaving the single market, an almost casual weapon in Boris Johnson’s leadership ambition.
Polls now show that a majority of Britons have seen this point. There is open regret about the 2016 referendum decision – which tells us all we need to know about plebiscite politics. But how to convert public opinion into a change of course is a different matter. That is now the urgency. The UK’s exclusion from one of the richest export markets in the world is hurting it, day after day. Henry Kissinger advised that, in negotiating, the key is never to start with big rows, but with small agreements. Build up from them. The Horizon deal shows that where goodwill exists, progress can be made. The Windsor framework on Northern Ireland was likewise a small agreement. Deals are now being mooted on veterinary standards, on financial regulation and on limited labour movement. Each year, thousands more EU workers are admitted to assist the harvest. The hospitality industry needs similar help. While border controls on farm exports to the EU are still grotesque, food imports from the EU pass unimpeded through Dover. This is desperately unfair on British farmers and has to stop. Clearly a deal must be done.
Keir Starmer has been feeble on Brexit for blatantly electoral reasons. He has even felt obliged to pledge no return to a customs union or a single market – as if desperate to win votes on the Tory right. Since he is not stupid, this must be intended as a Johnsonian inexactitude. Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, has been more constructive. He has promised to revise, “page by page”, Johnson’s Brexit deal. He has singled out for negotiation short-term travel, labour flexibility, border trade and regulatory standardisation. That covers most of the single market.
The real Brexit breakthrough must await some sign of atonement. Even its most ardent champion, Nigel Farage – who once supported remaining in the single market – has admitted it has failed. As yet, no senior Tory has shown the courage to agree. The party’s leading figures are, like Donald Trump supporters in America, mumbling their ongoing support and keeping their heads down for fear of offending their own right wing. They are praying for someone else to confess the error. There must be a route back – irrespective of EU membership – to a sensible, pragmatic economic relationship between Britain and the rest of Europe. An offshore island cannot divorce itself forever from its adjacent mainland. If British politics cannot admit it made a terrible mistake, it can at least start to rectify it. Horizon has shown how. We must hope a hundred Horizons lie ahead.