Letter From London, March 2029
Bloomberg Businessweek Middle East|1 January, 2019

A message from post-Brexit Britain about what the 2019 split from the EU hasn’t delivered.

John Fraher

King William V’s Bentley pulls out of RAF Northolt air base into the gray London morning. Britain’s new monarch settles into the ride to Buckingham Palace and steels himself for the weeks ahead. The 10th anniversary of Brexit looms and with it a litany of ceremonies to mark the Festival of New Britain.

The celebrations were supposed to observe the moment the U.K. finally extricated itself from the European Union in 2019 after months of parliamentary drama, political rancor, and a final market panic. It was, its proponents say, the moment when Britain finally seized its destiny in a world rattled by the unstoppable forces of globalization and technology.

But as the electric-powered Bentley hums along into London, William asks himself whether it was all really worth it. He taps on his smartphone, where the headlines seem to confirm those doubts. The U.K.’s only remaining car manufacturer has just announced plans to move its operations to Poland. Trade talks with the U.S. are going nowhere. And yet another opinion poll shows that a majority in Northern Ireland want to reunite with the south.

Britain in 2029 feels even angrier and more uncertain of its place in the world than the nation that voted for Brexit 13 years ago. If the vote reflected a desire to “take back control,” the separation from the EU doesn’t seem to be working. Most worryingly, the threads that bind the U.K. together appear to be coming undone. The poll from Northern Ireland will just encourage Scottish nationalists as they gear up for a 2030 independence vote. Everyone expects them to win.

In times of crisis, the monarch is supposed to bring the nation together. But as the suburbs of West London flit past, William wonders if anyone could do that now.

Everyone has their own opinion of the blur of events that led up to Britain’s exit from the EU in 2019. Some call it an act of national betrayal. Others hail the realism that staved off economic disaster. But most people just remember the chaos. The final season of The Crown aired in early 2029 and captured the current mood on Brexit pretty well, with its depiction of a bewildered Queen Elizabeth II looking on in thinly veiled disgust as the U.K. edged closer and closer to calamity.

In the end, pragmatism won the day. Theresa May hung on longer than people thought after negotiating her hated Brexit deal with the EU in late 2018. But after fending off repeated coup attempts from her own party, she accepted that her version of Brexit was never going to pass through Parliament. She made way for a new prime minister to work through the impasse. As the clock ticked down to March 29, 2019, the day Britain was due to leave the EU, markets started to slide.

At the last minute, a deal was struck. Britain’s new leader was forced to accept a pact not totally dissimilar to the one May had negotiated. It kept the country inside the customs union indefinitely but gave it no say over EU rules.

Die-hards accused the new prime minister of betraying Brexit. But a lot had changed since May’s original deal with Brussels. The pound plunged 20 percent against the dollar in the first weeks of 2019. Momentum for a second referendum grew stronger and stronger. And there was a growing sense across all political parties that the country was facing a crisis and that a no-deal Brexit had to be avoided at all costs.

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