Now Brexit is coming to terms with reality – Will Hutton

At this point it became clear that the climax of Brexit had been reached and that the wave was breaking in an unfortunate setback. On 7 September, the news that the UK would rejoin the European Union’s £81 billion (about €94 billion) Horizon scientific cooperation programme, albeit as an associated country, was greeted with general enthusiasm. A surprising development, especially for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who has stalled for months fearing a backlash from the Europhobic right. In fact, not a single Brexiteer complained that London abandoned its Plan B, the fourteen billion pound Pioneer programme. It was obvious that any controversy would be rejected by the entire scientific community. To be credible, superpower ambitions aside, the UK must be part of the world’s largest collaborative scientific research programme.

The decision is one of a reversal of ideas forged by the Conservative trinity formed by former prime minister Boris Johnson and his allies Jacob Rees-Mogg and David Frost. The first step back was the Windsor Agreement on Northern Ireland: accepting the role of guarantor of the European Court (one of the proposals under which Johnson overthrew Theresa May’s government) allowed Belfast to remain both in the Union’s single market and in the British one. Since 2019, as part of both regions, Northern Ireland has had the fastest growth rate of any region in the country except London.

To cut business costs, maintain economic growth and keep prices under control, Britain must adapt to what its big and powerful neighbor Europe wants.

Now the reversals follow each other. The UK will not repeal four thousand laws that had something to do with the European Union by Christmas. As one senior official explained to me, such an act would destroy the legal basis for much of Britain’s governance. The entry into force of the new EU border control regime for imports of food and plant products, scheduled for October, has been postponed for the fifth time. Ministers were concerned that this could cause inflation. To cut business costs, support economic growth and keep rising prices under control, Britain must adapt to what its big and powerful neighbor Europe wants. The same goes for Horizon and scientific research. Sunak hesitated for several months, but logic was inexorable. And even so, he tried to say that black is white. False: Horizon is a European program open to some associated countries if they accept EU rules. Game in Brussels.

A pattern is emerging. Because the government has no direction, it is forced to listen to common sense because it cannot develop one, and the unacknowledged truth is that Boris Johnson’s Brexit is, in fact, doomed to fail. The scientific community did the same with Horizon: Royal Society President Adrian Smith, for example, agreed to support the cause. The decision to return to the program “marks a turning point for British science”, said Paul Stewart, vice-president of the National Academy of Medical Sciences. Obviously, Plan B was no better.

British industry and finance should take note. It is good that Stephen Morley, president of the Confederation of Iron and Steel Industries, wrote the foreword to a well-reasoned report on the post-Brexit manufacturing sector published recently by the independent commission on relations between the United Kingdom and the European Union. Some 46 per cent of UK industrial exports, worth £169 billion, go to the European Union. It is as important for the manufacturing sector as for the research sector to minimize bureaucratic costs, harmonize regulations and guarantee market access.

The more you get into the details, the worse Johnson’s vaunted Brexit deal turns out to be. Secession will hang around the neck of the Conservative Party for another generation: it is the main reason for its continued unpopularity. In the meantime (Labour please take note) the manufacturing sector should get everything it represents.

Better yet, the UK will have to rejoin the Customs Union and Single Market. When this happens, the reception will be the same as if we returned to the Horizon program. The Brexit project has failed. Now we need to put the parts back together. ◆ FDL

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