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Sharp decline in UK economy after Brexit may spur nationalist sentiment

16:53 | 14.08.2020 | Analytic

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14 August 2020. PenzaNews. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is seriously concerned about the prospect of a rise in nationalist sentiment in Scotland and Northern Ireland after Brexit, says the New York Times.

Sharp decline in UK economy after Brexit may spur nationalist sentiment

Photo: Andrew Parsons, Flickr.com/number10gov

According to the article, on August 7, the prime minister sent Treasury chief, Rishi Sunak, to Scotland. His visit was aimed at reducing the degree of tension in this part of the country, where nationalist sentiment has recently surged. According to an average of recent polls, today 52.5 percent of Scots support the idea of leaving the UK. This is quite a significant change compared to the results of the 2014 referendum, when 44.7 percent of citizens voted for independence. The article also recalls that during another referendum – on Brexit, which took place in 2016, the overwhelming majority of Scots voted to remain in the European Union.

During his visit, Rishi Sunak, who is coordinating the British government’s economic rescue effort in response to the coronavirus, visited a number of businesses and reported to the Media that about 65,000 Scottish firms received 2 billion pounds, or 2.6 billion US dollars, in loans to survive the crisis. At the same time, he brushed aside questions about independence, saying that he did not think that it was the time to be talking about it.

Another senior official, Minister for Special Assignments, Michael Gove, went to Northern Ireland with nearly 500 million dollars in aid to help frustrated companies deal with new checks on shipped goods. Businesspeople there, including those loyal to London, worry they will be hurt by a costly, bureaucratic trading system between Northern Ireland and the rest of the union.

According to the experts of Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics and Political Science, the UK’s exit from the European Union will put additional strain on the country’s economy, many areas of which have been seriously affected during the COVID-19 pandemic. So, the July report of the organization says that the simultaneous negative impact of Brexit and the consequences of the fight against the new coronavirus will be felt from the autumn this year.

At the same time, according to the Office for National Statistics, in the second quarter of 2020 the UK economy contracted by 20.4 persent compared to the previous three months and by 21.7 percent in annual terms. In January–March, British GDP lost 2.2% QoQ and 1.7% YoY. Thus, the country’s economy plunged into a technical recession, which was last recorded in the United Kingdom in 2009.

Analyzing the current situation in the country, Michael Emerson, Associate Senior Research Fellow at Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), former Ambassador of the EU to Russia, noted that the opinion polls say now that a majority in the UK regret leaving the EU.

“Of course the COVID-19 dominates the mood and behavior. People are critical over the incoherence of the government’s COVID-19 policy. Meanwhile they observe that the EU27 now delivered at its marathon July 17–21 summit a strong recovery program with big financial innovations that the UK would never have accepted. Paradoxically therefore the EU is emerging stronger from the ‘loss’ of the UK,” the expert said.

In his opinion, the rise of nationalist sentiments in Scotland is associated with the effective policy of Edinburgh during the pandemic against the background of the rest of the country.

“The Scottish Prime Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, emerges for the pandemic better than the chaotic Boris Johnson. Pressures for secession for the UK and accession to the EU build up. This would require a new referendum, which to be legal would have to be agreed with London, which Boris Johnson rejects,” Michael Emerson explained.

According to him, the situation is on hold until after the next Scottish parliament elections in 2021, to see whether a strong pro-independence majority emerges.

Meanwhile, from his point of view, the politics of Northern Ireland do turn a bit more in favour of re-unification with the Republic of Ireland.

“But nothing big is happening for the moment, with COVID-19 dominating immediate concerns and also the need to wait and see how the UK-EU trade agreement is settled or not,” Michael Emerson added.

Iain Begg, Professorial Research Fellow at the European Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science, shared the opinion that the issue of Northern Ireland joining the Republic of Ireland is not really on the agenda at present, but tensions may rise after the end of this year.

According to him, in general, there are no significant changes in the situation around Brexit, because the UK still has nearly five months of transition left before completely leaving the EU.

“All the attention of the UK for the last six months has been on COVID-19, with the result that there is very little focus on the consequences of Brexit, other than on the poker game being played between the two sides in the negotiation of a deal on the future relationship,” Iain Begg noted.

However, he pointed to the growing popularity of the Scottish National Party.

“There has been an increase in support for the Scottish Nationalist Party, maybe partly affected by the Scottish rejection of Brexit, but there has also been – in political terms – more of an influence from a comparison of how the Scottish First Minister has dealt with COVID-19, and the more chaotic approach of Johnson,” the analyst explained.

In his opinion, the UK is still in a quiet period in relation to Brexit until there is more clarity about what sort of deal looks likely to be agreed.

Matt Qvortrup, Professor of Political Science at Coventry University, also said that the Brexit issue is eclipsed by COVID-19.

“Brexit is not widely discussed in England. But there is concern that we will not get a good deal with the EU. But there is a consensus now that Brexit will and should go ahead,” the expert said.

In his opinion, many in Scotland really want independence because Nicola Sturgeon is seen as a very impressive and successful politician.

“Boris Johnson has not been successful as Prime Minister. He is entertaining, but in times of crisis you don’t need an entertainer. The Brexit negotiations require patience and attention to detail. He has neither,” Matt Qvortrup stressed.

Moreover, he called the prospects for Northern Ireland joining the Irish Republic relatively high in the future.

“Even Protestants are coming around to the benefits of unification. The creation of a welfare state in Ireland, and the more progressive social attitudes in what used to be a very conservative society, and access to the European markets, make unification more attractive,” the expert explained.

In turn, John McGarry, Professor of Political Studies at Queen’s University in Canada, reminded that the decision to leave the EU has been confirmed by the government after a confident victory of conservatives in the December 2019 election: the Brexit question has been resolved and therefore does not cause heated debate.

“In any case, the political scene is now preoccupied by COVID-19. My understanding is that Scotland has not received any special treatment, but I’m not a specialist on Scotland. How the Scots react will depend on what happens to the British and EU economies after Brexit. If the EU does better than the UK, the Scots will remember that they voted to stay in the EU in the EU referendum, and this will give a boost to Scottish nationalism,” the professor said.

According to him, the situation in Northern Ireland is calmer as Belfast has achieved a number of conditions that it hoped for.

“The UK accepted that Northern Ireland would remain, effectively in the EU Customs Union and European Single Market, unlike the rest of the UK. This is what the Irish government and Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland wanted, but it has displeased the unionist community in Northern Ireland, which does not like the fact that Northern Ireland now effectively has a different status in relation to the EU than the rest of the UK,” John McGarry explained.

From his point of view, in the long term, the prospects for Irish reunification are reasonably good.

“The nationalist share of the population is growing, and some moderate unionists are not as strongly against Irish re-unification as they once were. Much of this has to do with changes in the Republic of Ireland, which is now a very liberal and secular state, rather than a conservatively Catholic one. It is also a very prosperous state, rather than, as before, a destitute one. The prospects for unification will increase if the economic gap between the Republic of Ireland and the UK continues to increase to the Republic’s advantage. So, if the EU’s economy, including Ireland’s, does much better than the UK’s in coming years, it will increase support in Northern Ireland for reunification and in Scotland for independence,” the expert concluded.

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