The UK is Out of the EU, But the Balance of Power in Europe has Tipped Permanently Against It

Port of Dover. Photograph Source: User:Mtcv – CC BY-SA 3.0

The view from the top of the Western Heights, the great fortified hill overlooking Dover, has the advantage of taking in many of the key features shaping life in Britain in the age of Brexit and Covid-19. The most important of these is the proximity of the French coast, glittering on the horizon 22 miles away, a fact of geography that will continue to determine what happens in Britain more than any trade deal or withdrawal agreement with the EU.

If proof of this were needed, it was provided over Christmas by the devastating impact of the French ban on untested lorry drivers crossing the Channel in a bid to stop them spreading the new variant of the virus to France. The giant backlog of stranded trucks and trapped truck drivers graphically illustrated the dependence of Britain on unhampered links to continental Europe.

The brief fracas reinforced the menacing message already sent during the course of the negotiations with the EU that, when push comes to shove, the UK will always have to play the weaker hand in any confrontation. We have already witnessed this permanent tilting of the balance of power away from Britain and towards the 27 EU nations, with the UK agreeing to shift the commercial border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic to the middle of the Irish Sea.

Journalists briefly poured into Dover to report on how the super-efficient port, normally capable of sending 10,000 trucks a day to-and-fro between Britain and France, had been brought to nearly a complete halt. Few drew attention to another fact about Dover, more damaging to Britain than any short-term impediment to trade, which goes a long way to explain its decision to leave the EU.

A few hundred yards from the thriving port is the moribund town of Dover, whose people draw almost no benefit from the £122bn a year in trade that flows past their doors. Instead, they have seen the disappearance of big employers – marine services, paper factory, barracks, prison – from Dover in the 48 years that their country has been a member of the EU.

Brussels may not be responsible for this economic decay – it was, rather, the unwitting scapegoat – but it paid the price for presiding over what many people in Dover rejected as an unacceptable status quo. The Brexit campaign and the Johnsonian version of the Conservative Party, now transformed into a thorough-going English nationalist party, became the convenient vehicle for their grievances over being left behind or left out.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).