Buffeted by Economic Woes, U.K. Starts to Look at Brexit With ‘Bregret’


LONDON — Six and a half years after voting to leave the European Union, three years after the formal departure, two years after signing a post-Brexit trade deal with Brussels and one month after installing its fourth prime minister since the 2016 referendum, Britain is caught in — what else? — another debate over Brexit.

Brexit may be in the history books, but “Bregret,” as the British newspapers have called it, is back in the air.

The cause of the remorse is clear: Britain’s economic crisis, which is the gravest in a generation and worse than those of its European neighbors. Not all — or even most — of the problems are because of Brexit, but Britain’s vexed trade relationship with the rest of Europe indisputably plays a role. That makes it a ripe target for an anxious public casting about for something to blame.

The latest eruption of this never-ending drama began last week with an opinion poll that showed support for Brexit had fallen to its lowest level yet. Only 32 percent of those surveyed in the poll, by the firm YouGov, said that they thought leaving the European Union was a good idea; 56 percent said it was a mistake.

The Brexit second-guessing grew louder this week, after The Sunday Times of London published a report that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was considering pursuing a closer arrangement with the European Union, modeled on that of Switzerland. The Swiss have access to the single market and fewer border checks, in return for paying into the bloc’s coffers and accepting some of its rules.

Mr. Sunak quickly shot down the report, which was attributed to “senior government sources.”

“Under my leadership,” Mr. Sunak told business executives on Monday, “the United Kingdom will not pursue any relationship with Europe that relies on alignment with E.U. laws.”

“I voted for Brexit, I believe in Brexit,” Mr. Sunak added. “I know that Brexit can deliver, and is already delivering, enormous benefits and opportunities for the country.”

But the prime minister’s denial is no more likely to settle the issue than did the vow of one of his predecessors, Boris Johnson, to “get Brexit done” or the insistence of another former prime minister, Theresa May, that “Brexit means Brexit.” Both of those leaders spent much of their time in 10 Downing Street fighting battles related to the split with the bloc. Mrs. May lost her job because of it.

While nobody is predicting that Britain will seek to rejoin the European Union, political analysts said that the Sunday Times report, on top of the dismal economic data and growing popular sentiment against Brexit, would open a fresh chapter in Britain’s search for a new relationship with the rest of Europe. Where that would lead, they cautioned, was impossible to predict.

“A genie’s been let out of the bottle,” said Mujtaba Rahman, an analyst at the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group. “What’s beginning is a much more fundamental debate. What is the long-run equilibrium between the two sides? Is it Switzerland? Is it Norway?” he added, referring to a country that has even closer ties to the European Union than Switzerland, also without being a member.

“You can’t really address the economic problems the U.K. has without addressing and improving the trade relationship with the E.U,” Mr. Rahman said. “Otherwise, you’re just fiddling around the edges.”

Calculating how much to blame Brexit for Britain’s woes is tricky, however, given all the other headwinds battering the country. Economists note that Britain has been cursed by stagnant growth since the financial crisis of 2009, a result of inadequate investment and slumping productivity.

In a forecast released last week alongside Mr. Sunak’s new budget, a fiscal watchdog group, the Office for Budget Responsibility, said that Brexit had exerted a “significant adverse impact” on Britain’s trade.

It has also exacerbated labor shortages across businesses as diverse as London restaurants and trucking companies. While some of that is because of Britons who left their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic and have not yet rejoined the labor force — a sort of economic long Covid — employers are also struggling to replace workers from Europe who went home after Brexit and did not return.

Since then, Britain has been gripped by double-digit inflation, rising interest rates and a recession that the Bank of England recently warned could last two years. Among the Group of 7 advanced countries, Britain is the only one with an economy that is smaller now than it was before the pandemic started. It was recently overtaken by India as the world’s fifth-largest economy.

“We can argue about the extent to which Brexit is responsible for Britain’s economic problems,” said John Curtice, a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, Scotland, and a leading British expert on polling. “But it is very difficult to convince people that a wonderful economic nirvana is coming around the corner because of Brexit.”

Mr. Sunak has other problems. There is no indication that the European Union would go along with a Swiss-style arrangement for Britain, even if he pursued it. Britain has refused to abide by an agreement it struck with Brussels on the hybrid trade status of Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom but shares a border with the Republic of Ireland, a member of the European Union.

While Mr. Sunak has tried to lower the temperature in talks with Brussels over that deal, there is no imminent sign of a breakthrough. Resolving the perennial tensions over Northern Ireland is a prerequisite for any bigger reset.

There is even less hope that his Conservative Party, with its powerful euroskeptic flank, would accept a Swiss-style relationship. The Sunday Times report provoked fierce denunciations from Brexiteers like David Frost, who had negotiated the trade agreement with Brussels for Mr. Johnson.

There has been fevered speculation about who might have leaked it, ranging from Mr. Sunak’s chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, who voted against Brexit, to Mr. Sunak himself. The prime minister’s Brexiteer credentials are often questioned by hard-line euroskeptics because of his more pragmatic style.

“The way to deal with the economic consequences of Brexit would not be tolerable politically for many in the Tory party,” said Anand Menon, a professor of European politics at Kings College London.

That leaves Mr. Sunak in a quandary. The most obvious solution is politically unpalatable. His predecessors were able to promote Brexit as a blow for British sovereignty or as a curb against uncontrolled immigration. Now, it is being judged on its economic impact — and being found sorely wanting.

“Brexit wasn’t viewed through the lens of economics,” Professor Menon said. “It was viewed through culture or values. Now everything is economic, and while you can sell Brexit many ways, selling it as a boost to G.D.P. is a stretch.”

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