Peter Bye

Four days after the EU referendum in 2016, I posted a piece in which I reflected on some of the problems the UK would face in building a new relationship with Brussels[1]. I had no special insight; what I said just seemed to me to be fairly obvious. For example, I believed that negotiations with the EU would be tough, and that ‘the chances of getting anything close to what we currently have but with immigration controls and no subscription are a fantasy. At this stage, we need the EU members more than they need us’. In other words, we couldn’t have our cake and eat it, which was Boris Johnson’s stated ambition at the time. I also noted that ‘Mr Johnson’s primary motivation for embracing the Leave campaign appears to be his ambition to be Prime Minister. It is after all strange that the person who was Mayor of London, one of the most pro-EU parts of the country, should adopt the opposite point of view’. It took him a while but he eventually made it to PM.

The EU has indeed proved to be a tough trade negotiator; after all, it held all the high cards in the talks. The best that can be said about the resulting agreement is that it is better than no deal. That has not stopped Mr Johnson and those around him from hailing the result as a success[2], although others disagree[3]. The trade agreement covers goods but not services, which make up about 80% of the UK economy. And the non-tariff barriers to trade thrown up by Brexit will cost business an estimated GBP 7 billion in bureaucracy[4]. Interestingly, that figure is not far short of the net contribution to the EU budget at the time of the referendum: it was between GBP 8 and 9 billion[5].

In late July 2016, I posted a piece on the issue of sovereignty, a subject which appears to have overtaken immigration as the central concern of the Brexiteers over the years since the referendum. I’d like to revisit a couple of the points I made at that time[6]: sovereignty and security.

Start with sovereignty: how would the UK ‘regain’ it on leaving the EU? The UK, along with the remaining 27 members of the EU, is a sovereign nation in international law. The EU is an association of the member nations, not a sovereign nation or any other kind of nation in its own right. As a sovereign nation, the UK is a member of the UN with a permanent seat on the Security Council, a member of the G7 and G20, a member of NATO and of various other international organisations.

So talk of regaining sovereignty is meaningless, as the UK had never stopped being a sovereign nation. The impression that Mr Johnson and the ardent Brexiteers sought to make was that sovereignty means a complete absence of control by anyone else, in any circumstance. But to have trade relationships, or indeed any agreements with other countries or organisations, such as membership of NATO, requires observance of common rules, with an independent means of arbitration in the event of a dispute[7]. So unless the UK ends all international agreements, and becomes a sort of (benign, with a bit of luck) North Korea, it cannot have complete control.

What about security? Leaving the EU, we were told, would enable the UK to take back control of its borders so that we could manage the flow of immigrants, including criminals and potential terrorists. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, recently insisted that the new border controls, in place from 1st January 2021, will help to make the UK safer[8]. It’s not easy to see why. The UK was not part of the Schengen area, so everyone entering the UK would be checked. The fact that the only land border is with Ireland makes entry easier to control, as the great majority of entry points are airports and ports. Smuggling people in is also more difficult as it would usually involve sea crossings. It was true that EU citizens had the right of free movement for work and so could not be stopped from coming to the UK, but entry could be denied if there was any indication of criminal intent. And, ironically, the most egregious terrorist incidents[9] have been committed by UK citizens and, in the past, by members of Irish republican splinter groups: movement between the UK and Ireland has always been easier and will remain so. Sir Ian Blair, a former head of London’s Metropolitan Police, said that leaving the EU will make the UK less safe[10]. He told the BBC that this was because ‘we’ve lost full access to Europe-wide, real-time, interrogatable databases on criminal records, DNA, fingerprints, criminal intelligence’.

Where does all this leave the UK? In terms of trade, it has managed a unique achievement in trade agreements: it has negotiated a worse deal than it had at the start. We now face years of negotiation with the EU and other countries or trading blocs to establish comprehensive new free trade agreements, including services. Regaining sovereignty as the Brexiteers conceive of it is likely to prove a fantasy, as compromises are necessary for any international agreement. And in spite of Ms Patel’s pronouncements about increased security, the view of Sir Ian Blair and others who know about law enforcement is that security will be reduced.

If there is a wider lesson, it shows the danger of letting a group of obsessives such as the (primarily Conservative Party) Brexiteers get in a position of power. They painted a grotesque caricature of the EU as a malign influence and persuaded enough people to vote for it in the referendum. Sadly, evidence from respected opinion polls suggests that a majority in favour of remain would be the result of a new vote[11].

Notes and sources

[1] Own goals come to mind… – Peter Bye (, 27th June, 2016

[2] For example, see the comments recorded in an FT piece by George Parker, 1st January 2021. Boris Johnson hails ‘amazing moment’ as Brexit transition ends | Financial Times ( The report also reports the following comment to the BBC by Sir Iain Duncan-Smith, a former Conservative Party leader: ‘I just wish I was 21 again. My goodness, what prospects lie ahead of us for young people now: to be out there, buccaneering, trading, dominating the world again’. You have to wonder what world he lives in.

[3] Jonathon Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff and chief negotiator of the Good Friday agreement, said that the trade deal was the worst UK negotiation in at least 40 years. See Brexit: Boris Johnson’s EU trade deal branded worst UK negotiation in at least 40 years | The Independent

[4] The point about non-tariff barriers is also mentioned in the FT piece.

[5] See The UK’s EU membership fee – Full Fact for a discussion of the EU annual membership fee.

[6] JSovereignty…to do what? – Peter Bye (, 29th July 2016

[7] For eloquent discussions of the meaning of sovereignty in the context of Brexit, see the piece by Bobby McDonagh, a former Irish ambassador to London, Brussels and Rome, in the Irish Times: Somebody needs to explain sovereignty to Johnson before it is too late (, 23rd November 2020, and the piece by Patrick Smyth, also in the Irish Times The emperor’s new clothes: the UK ‘sovereignty’ illusion ( 2nd January 2021.

[8] See PM’s Brexit deal makes UK safer, Priti Patel insists | Priti Patel | The Guardian

[9] The London underground bombing on 7th July 2005 and the Manchester Arena attack on 22nd May 2017, for instance.

[10] See UK will be ‘less safe’ after Brexit, says former Metropolitan Police chief | The Independent

[11] See Daily chart – Britain is heading for a hard Brexit. Voters now prefer none at all | Graphic detail | The Economist

Author :


  1. “To do what?” To drive your life yourselves, making agreements every time that it makes sense – with the freedom to quit anytime that it stops making sense.
    It will be expensive, but money (time and energy) very well spent.
    The only pre-requisite you must have, in order to make such decision, is to be a solid democracy and to be able to produce good leaders. I smell you’re missing nothing. Millions of Italians (apparently a minority) would like to be able to say the same.

    It is because you are a solid democracy that you all decided to stick with the unique vote which triggered the Brexit. Someone, or many, might be “sad” for this, but you all respect the result of that vote and you all agree that it is legit to then quit the EU. “Opinion polls” are not democracy. Ask the Italians, who are governed by parties which now would be minority, according to any polls, but live miserably because do not accept to acknowledge that this is still democracy. They should have voted better when it was the right time.

    You might disagree with your leaders, but still they look politicians. Ask the Italians, what they say about the ones that they (directly or indirectly) unfortunately elected.

    You made the mistake to join the EU but you did not double it joining the €uro too. Ask the Italians.

    To be in charge of your destiny is, first of all, a duty. Then a responsibility. I envy you.

    Your Italian friend.

    1. Many thanks for your usual considered comments. I can’t speak for the situation in Italy as I do not know enough about it. I will therefore confine my comments to the UK.

      In our experience, and I believe overall, the EU has been a benefit to the UK. It has improved UK productivity and increased trade. Alison’s experience in running a small, high tech company which exported most of its products, was that doing business in the EU was easier after the single market started. And the EU was no obstacle to exporting elsewhere: most of the sales were outside the EU. At a personal level, we found the ease of movement to be a benefit.

      You have a more positive view of the Brexit process and the UK government than we do! Boris Johnson supported Brexit as he thought it would be the best way to become Prime Minister. The vote leave campaign was based on wishful thinking and outright lies. And the government refused to allow the people another vote when it became clearer what the new relationship would be. If we had continued to vote leave, so be it. But we never got the chance to say.

      You can see more about our views on EU membership in the blog I posted in July 2015.

      Thanks again for the thoughtful comments.

  2. I take an alternate view to the one expressed above “You might disagree with your leaders, but still they look [like] politicians”. I fear that distance makes Boris and is cohort look like politicians when in fact they are just another bunch of privileged social climbers. I’m constantly told to remember what a wonderful politician Margaret Thatcher was. She was seen as a saint by people in other countries. All I remember from her time in power was a questionable war entered to boost her own popularity, her opposition to sanctions against South Africa and the divisions she created by destroying unions and introducing the ‘poll tax’ – a move which eventually cost her the leadership.

    Peter is right when he points out that Boris only decided to jump on the Brexit bandwagon when he saw the opportunity for personal gain. Unfortunately his populist rhetoric and a weak opposition caused him to be voted in as the best of bad deal. There are reports from the north of England where long term Labour voters say that voting for him was a mistake, which they won’t ever repeat. In addition Brexit is costing small firms huge amounts of money and the papers are full of stories saying that companies across Europe can’t face the bureaucratic nightmare of selling to the U.K caused by the withdrawal agreement.

    Finally, a quote from political writer Rafael Behr’s article in this week’s Guardian magazine which resonated with me: “I was one of the remainers who admired the European project as the continent’s collective repudiation of bloodthirsty nationalism. The Europe that I voted for in 2016 represented the antithesis of forces that had driven my great-grandparents into exile and murdered those of their relatives who stayed behind. It pained me that the argument for Britain’s alignment with that ideal was being lost, and it pained me that he winners were so vindictive in victory. “

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