The Schadenfreude of Brexit

Decades ago, a German word entered the English language. The word was Schadenfreude. Schadenfreude is the experience of pleasure, joy, and self-satisfaction that comes from learning of or witnessing the troubles, failures, and humiliation of another. Yet, this German word has no direct translation.

Some might argue that people might feel Schadenfreude about Brexit – when the UK left the European Union. They feel pleasure and joy about the troubles, failures, and humiliation that the people of the UK have brought onto themselves. Brexit came with a slim majority of just 1.89% of voters. It was this 1.89% that got Brexit across the line of 50% when 51.89% of British people voted for Brexit on 23rd June 2016.

Just about two years after Brexit – the UK’s separation from the EU came into effect. It was exactly on 31st of January 2020, at 11p.m (GMT) when the United Kingdom officially withdrew from the European Union. The separation – known as Brexit – was supposed to bring prosperity to the UK. By contrast to the overblown pro-Brexit election announcements of a glorious future, Britain’s economy is in fact clearly lagging behind the rest of Europe.

Unlike the propagandistic pledges of his three conservative predecessors – May, BoJo, and Truss – the fourth and current Tory prime minister – Sunak, a multi-millionaire is preparing the British for more problems. The UK has clearly missed its target for trade agreements set for the year after Brexit.

Less than two thirds of the foreign trade volume have so far been covered by post-Brexit trade agreements. Originally, the conservative government in London had set a target of 80% for new trade contracts by the end of 2022.

Yet, the possibility – as a sovereign state freed from the shackles of the EU – that the UK can conclude its very own trade agreements, was one of the central promises of Brexit.

According to the latest official figures available, only 63% of foreign trade is covered by such contracts so far. The Tory government had set high goals but achieving them seems out of reach.

Instead of trade deals, the UK’s conservative government is claiming to be “ready to continue negotiations” with, for example, the United States – a rather humiliating outcome after two years.

In the meantime, the conservative UK government “was busy working towards” (!) reducing trade barriers for British companies. As negotiations with the EU and the USA aren’t going anywhere, the Tories announced that they would focus on deals with India, the Gulf states, Canada, Mexico, Israel, and the Indo-Pacific.

On the map of UK trade partners, one has a hard time finding these countries because they are rather insignificant in terms of trade with the UK. The UK’s top trading partners are the USA, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, and France – of which four are EU countries.

The excuse of the Tory party is that trade agreements are complicated. In reality, the rest of the world does not see trade with the UK as important as the UK’s very own Brexiteers made everybody believe – including themselves.

In other words, not everyone – in fact nearly no-one – is waiting patiently in a queue wanting to sign a trade deal with what the Tories sold as “Global Britain”. The fairytale of “Global Britain” was another hallucination that made Brexit possible.

The humiliating failure of British conservatives is especially true in the case of the USA which was always considered to be the “main prize”. Despite Bojo, Truss, and Sunak’s hallucinations, negotiations with the USA government and its current president Joe Biden are currently not very promising.

On the EU side, things are no better. The dispute between London and the EU over post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland makes the situation more complicated. In many cases, those few trade agreements the UK has reached with other countries have simply been a ‘cut-&-paste’ job from a time when the UK was part of the EU.

Today, conditions are much worse for the UK (e.g. those with Australia and Japan) than they were when the UK was still part of the EU trade regime.

According to a recent survey, the trade pact with the EU does not bring British companies the expected benefits. In a survey by the British Chamber of Commerce, more than three quarters of the companies surveyed said that the Brexit deal does not help them to increase their sales. In fact, according to these data, 56% of companies have problems with the new trading rules.

On the second anniversary of Brexit, the Scottish government is also renewing its criticism of the British’s exit from the EU. Scots believe that the damage caused by Brexit will only continue to grow. In the two years since the end of Brexit’s transition period, Scotland have not seen any advantages in leaving the European Union.

Despite the well-crafted PR myth that “they can run the economy”, UK conservatives have made sure that the British economy is basically on the wrong track. Worse, British conservatives staunchly follow Maggie Thatcher’s TINA: there is no alternative – to Brexit.

Yet, in the all-important 2016 Brexit vote, the Scots had voted against Brexit – by a large majority. Meanwhile, the current British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is trying to further soften up the British about the persistent Brexit problems. These are the problems that his party – the conservatives – have created in the first place.

Recently, he was forced to admit that 2023 will present “us” – of course, there is always the rhetorically important “us” – with challenges. These are called “challenges” to avoid words like problems, misery, failure, etc. Yet, economy Uber manager – the conservatives – have created all of these problems. Sunak’s public relation statement was followed by a rather meaningless, the government I am leading puts its priorities first.

The rhetoric is continued by blaming others. Brexit isn’t mentioned by Sunak, naturally. Instead of Brexit, Sunak blamed the Russian war of aggression against the Ukraine for the UK’s severe economic crisis with high inflation and recession. The conservative’s propaganda seeks to imply: the economic misery we have created has nothing to do with Brexit!

The myth making continues with, the whole world will be hit by this, Great Britain is no exception. What remains unmentioned is that – unlike any other OECD country, Britain suffered from a double whammy: Brexit and Russia’s war.

What is also hidden in the conservative’s speech is that most experts see the consequences of Brexit and fundamentally wrong economic decisions of the ruling Conservative Party as a decisive factor.

In other words, the acclaimed master of the economy – the conservatives – have made sure that their own goals have not been achieved. Contrary to the “we run the economy hallucination” of the conservatives, the British pound is actually losing its value while exports are lagging.

Worse, the political party that claims to fight red tape and bureaucratic hurdles has actually made sure that trade is further paralyzed by even more paper work – not less – after Brexit. Worse, Brexit is also a disaster in so many other respects – from growing racism in the UK to a marked decline in student exchanges, and less scientific exchange with Europe.

For many Britons, the 2nd anniversary of Brexit is a rather rude awakening. Brexit has not made them richer – but poorer instead. Recent economic figures are downright humiliating. No country in the G20 performs worse than the UK – apart from the heavily sanctioned Russia.

At the same time, the British pound has crashed. It lost about 20% of its value against the dollar and the Euro. Worse, imports are becoming more expensive and this fuel inflation. While many countries struggle with a devaluation of money, the British have been hit particularly hard. The UK inflation rate was 10.7%.

The economic weakness also affects taxes. The British earned £40 billion less per year than without Brexit. This gives the conservative’s ideology of eternal “tax cuts” an entire new meaning.

This money is urgently needed to invest in infrastructure and in the health care system. BoJo’s £350 million a week of tax-money saved after leaving the EU turned out to be – yet another – lie. Instead of funding the NHS, as promised by the conservatives, the NHS is in deep crisis.

Even rather small details have become humiliating for the UK. One issue that the London police, for example, had to deal with was that it needed to buy new armored cars “NOT” from a British manufacturer but from Audi. No English company was able to meet the requirements of the tender.

Yet, many Brexit fans had dreamed that their domestic industry would blossom to a whole new size – another lie of the conservatives. Since Brexit came into force in January 2021, the very opposite from what the conservatives promised actually happened.

The past two years have been extremely bitter – even in terms of international politics. Britain’s conservatives were forced to come to terms with the fact that there was very little international interest in their economy. No significant trade deal was signed in the last two years.

Instead, the UK was plagued by customs’ problems in trade with the EU. In their self-created political hallucinations, UK conservatives had envisioned to conclude a lot of free trade agreements after Brexit. This – as the false propaganda promises went – was designed to grant the British unique advantages.

But in fact, there were substantially new agreements only with rather insignificant trading countries such as, for example, Australia and New Zealand. Worse, these agreements had next to no meaning at all.

These two deals were expected to increase the UK’s economic output by a super-negligible 0.1% and 0.03% (!) – in the long term. What the master of the economy – the conservatives – did borders on a bitter joke.

Despite grand Tory propaganda, Brexit has only brought in disadvantages. This is particularly evident in exports. British exports actually should have increased because the pound has fallen so much and British goods are becoming significantly cheaper on world markets. But exports are not getting off the ground. Foremost, because trading with the EU – the UK’s most significant trading partner – has become very difficult due to Brexit.

In other words, UK’s trading with the EU – its largest trading partner – goes backward. And this is not surprising. After all, the trading area that the UK left, i.e. the EU is only 34km from Britain. Yet since Brexit, British companies have to fill out a jumble of customs’ documents if they want to export their goods to Europe.

Despite the Tory claim of “we support small businesses”, particularly medium-sized companies are overwhelmed. As a consequence, they either give up completely or set up subsidiaries in the EU to avoid the customs’ problems.

In short, Brexit is a disaster for the British. And, it has gotten even worse during the last two years. Today, the majority of the British people regrets Brexit.

There is also a growing awareness in the UK that Brexit was a mistake. In recent surveys, 51% of respondents now say that it was wrong to leave the EU. While 34% still think this decision was right.

However, this change of heart has not had any political consequences so far. The opposition Labor Party prefers to avoid the topic of Brexit in order not to scare away voters. At the same time, the ruling Tories have embarked on a rhetorical rant trying to sell the increasingly unsellable: Brexit.

Recently, PM Rishi Sunak is said to have considered adopting the “Swiss model”. Switzerland is not in the EU. Through a special agreement, Switzerland can participate in the internal EU market – it can trade with the EU. And the Swiss can do that without paying significantly to the EU – no membership fees. A similar deal would be perfect for the British – the British conservatives thought.

With a Swiss-style agreement, the UK could continue to save €6.8bn of payments to the EU that the UK used to transfer to the EU. Simultaneously, this would solve their export problems. However, Sunak had to quickly abandon this push. His Tory base did not move with him.

The Swiss model has one disadvantage, at least from the point of view of Brexit fans: they would have to adopt many EU regulations again because the internal market can only work if all participants adhere to the same rules.

Without being represented in the institutions of the EU, Switzerland has virtually no input into shaping EU rules. Switzerland is, therefore, constantly busy adapting its own laws to European decisions. A lot of Brits do not want that.

Conversely, the EU has let it be known that it does not want to re-issue the Swiss model. This is consistent with current EU thinking. The EU could not “sell off” itself, because other countries might also want to leave the EU, in order to save on membership fees. That could mushroom into a fatal consequence for the EU.

When many British are discussing Brexit, they complain mainly about endless customs’ forms and empty supermarket shelves. Yet, the real drama takes place elsewhere – in the City of London. Today, British banks are no longer subjected to European supervision and thus lose access to the mainland.

It is not impossible that the British financial sector will shrink by about 30% in the long term. The British can hardly afford such a significant loss in one of their principal export sectors: the UK’s financial sector. This is because the income generated from financial services by the City of London are needed to pay for imports into the UK.

In reality, the British have always imported far more than they exported. Worse, this deficit is now continuing to swell. So far, it has not been a serious problem. Britain has borrowed abroad to cover their consumption. The British pound was considered a stable currency. Yet, this may soon be over.

After Brexit and despite the nationalistic rhetoric of the conservatives, it became increasingly noticeable that the UK is in fact a rather small island that has almost no industry. It is rare for a country to deliberately and voluntarily seek to become impoverished. But the British have decided to do just that – perhaps to the Schadenfreude of many.

Thomas Klikauer has over 800 publications (including 12 books) and writes regularly for BraveNewEurope (Western Europe), the Barricades (Eastern Europe), Buzzflash (USA), Counterpunch (USA), Countercurrents (India), Tikkun (USA), and ZNet (USA). One of his books is on Managerialism (2013).


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