After Five Years, Four COVID Variants and Three Prime Ministers, Is Brexit Over Now?

After five years, four COVID variants, three prime ministers, two general elections and a lot of accidental Partridge in pared-down press conferences, what's happened to the Brexit debate and is the U.K. even more divided than it was before?

By now, everyone in Britain knows that "Brexit means Brexit." It was a slogan of former British Prime Minister Theresa May and this lack of clear vision of what it meant, at least in part, led to her downfall after not being able to get a Brexit deal through U.K. parliament.

Current Prime Minister Boris Johnson set out to cut the "dither and delay" and "waffle" and promised to "get Brexit done," which was seen as a key part of a sweeping general election victory in 2019. But five years after the vote on June 23, 2016, Brexit might be "done" and Britain might be out of the European Union (EU) but trying to understand what Brexit means for the U.K. is only just beginning.

"The decision to leave the EU may now be part of our history, but our clear mission is to utilize the freedoms it brings to shape a better future for our people," Johnson said in a fifth-anniversary statement. What does Brexit really mean in practice? Have the divides widened or have those in Britain come to accept the exit? And how has COVID-19 changed what Brexit means now and in the future?

"The public remains divided in their views on Britain's decision to leave the EU," Kelly Beaver, managing director of market research company Ipsos MORI's Public Affairs division, tells Newsweek. "In our survey from March this year—nearly the same proportion would want to rejoin the EU as not. Other studies which have asked people if they would vote the same way as they did back in 2016 also show that the vast majority of people—over 4 in 5—state that they would vote the same way.

"Experts like [elections academic] Sir John Curtice have commented that even with young people coming of voting age and heavily leaning towards remain, if the vote was to happen today it would still be very divided but more likely to be a slight majority to leave."

What in 2016 was clearly divided into "leave" or "remain" camps has morphed over five years into a conversation around a "war on woke," a pride in "Britishness" and polling companies have found increasing differences between "leavers" and "remainers" on other issues. This is perhaps best crystallized by the polarized debate about whether statues of those who benefited from the slave trade should be kept up or taken down.

Britain, similar to the U.S. is in the middle of a "culture war" around Britishness and identity. This has seen a sharp rise in hate crime particularly around migrants and an increase of rhetoric around "tightening borders." While it's not quite the "build a wall" rhetoric of Trump, a "Borders Bill" introduced by Home Secretary Priti Patel seeks to stop "illegal migration" with critics saying it will make claiming asylum in the U.K. much more difficult.

Those who voted "leave" in the referendum are much more likely to agree with the death penalty, respect "traditional British values," believe that things were "better in the past" and disagree with political correctness, according to Ipsos MORI, and this idea of "woke culture" is becoming more prominent.

British officials meet EU Brexit negotiators
Britain's David Frost (right) has been leading negotiations around trade with his EU counterpart Maroš Šefčovič (left). Eddie Mulholland/Associated Press

"Brexit revealed and reinforced two very distinct underlying identities and worldviews, and those have been really important in shaping our politics and cultural discussions," professor Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at King's College London, tells Newsweek. "It gave shape to something we hadn't quite named before, and has led to people strongly identifying with their own side, differentiating themselves from the other side and seeing objective realities entirely differently.

"It's been a process of affective polarization, where we don't like or trust the other side, not based on the issues necessarily, but on their membership of a group identity. This is a risky position, and is one of the strands that adds to the growing focus on a culture war in the U.K."

There are arguments on both sides as to whether this culture war hastened Brexit or Brexit hastened the culture war, but it's difficult to see one without the other. While government officials appearing in front of the Union Jack might seem commonplaceto American eyes, Britain's relationship with its flag is a complicated one, tied up with empire, far-right groups and pride of the country and, until recently, has been sparsely used.

"Britishness is notoriously ill-defined, and in strong contrast to the very strong sense of national identity seen in some other countries, like the U.S.," says Duffy. "This doesn't mean it isn't important, or people feel unconnected, just that it is rather nebulous, which is a strength as well as a weakness, as it can adapt to changing times. There is certainly a sense that immigration is more in our control now, which was a key area of concern for some who think that Britain was changing too fast."

These arguments around culture, migration and Britain on the global stage seem to have overtaken Brexit as a discussion topic. As an example, the U.K.'s public broadcaster the BBC did not acknowledge the anniversary in Wednesday morning's bulletins or on its main news homepages. The Brexit conversation seems to have moved on even before the impact of leaving the EU has been felt.

One thing that has overtaken everything is COVID-19, with complications around traveling or exporting goods to other countries after EU withdrawal only seen through the lens of COVID. And this means that the impact of either of them is difficult to separate.

"A majority of people —56 percent—do not believe that they have felt any personal impacts of Brexit as yet," says Beaver. "Indeed, [59 percent] don't know anyone whose job or business have been affected. As a result of COVID-19, some of the concerns about Brexit such as restricted mobility, access to foods from other European countries are hard for the public to form an opinion on. It is likely that we will see these sorts of issues rise more in the public consciousness once COVID dissipates."

Britain's COVID vaccination response, being one of the quickest countries in the world, is seen by those in Britain, who hear of delays elsewhere in Europe, as being helped by being out of the EU. But when COVID restrictions end, the issues around trade agreements, migration and laws around food and trading will return and one big issue, close to the heart of President Joe Biden, hasn't gone anywhere.

"Storm clouds are gathering on the horizon, chief among them the threat to the Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland," pro-European Conservative Lord Michael Heseltine has said. With the border between the EU and the U.K on the island of Ireland, where tensions still remain high, a lot of politics and diplomacy are still needed here before those "storm clouds" dissipate.

Brexit has so far seen the end of two prime ministers and this border issue, along with any sharp falls in GDP below European performance, would be the most likely reason for the end of the third one. But five years since the vote, no one is certain exactly how Brexit will play out. João Vale de Almeida, the EU's ambassador to the U.K., said his uncertainty goes much longer into the future. "I don't know what our relationship will be in 20 years' time," he told The Times of London.

If that's the case, maybe "Brexit meaning Brexit" is the closest thing we can expect to a definition for some time to come yet.

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