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% of those surveyed in the poll, by the firm YouGov, said that they thought leaving the European Union was a good idea; 56% 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.
Sunak quickly shot down the report, which was attributed to “senior government sources.”
“Under my leadership,” Sunak told business executives Monday, “the United Kingdom will not pursue any relationship with Europe that relies on alignment with EU laws.”
“I voted for Brexit, I believe in Brexit,” Sunak added. “I know that Brexit can deliver, and is already delivering, enormous benefits and opportunities for the country.”
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.