The argument put forward by Brexit critics in the past, and now, is a combination of such: 1) The world moves in large, multilateral blocs – hence being part of the EU, the closest possible multilateral bloc, means the UK can stay an active part of the world economy. In an era where big collective action must be taken, from bulk buying PPE in a pandemic to ordering vaccines, they so say, having access to the leverage a big, powerful, EU has, is a benefit. 2) Given the UK's trade relations with the EU, being in the bloc makes economic sense, because it eases trade relations with one region of the world.
Those are, of course, only the economic arguments. The conclusion of this, they decided, was that the years after Brexit would produce few winners, many losers. While long-term foreign policy and economic questions rightly deserve to be asked, and the long-term consequences of Brexit will continue to be evaluated in years to come – I think it would be fair to say Brexit has had quite a few successes and has proven naysayers wrong.
Shell's announcement might prove otherwise – even post-COP26 as the Commission's First Vice-President Frans Timmermans proclaimed that climate ambition "doesn't stop here. It only starts," Shell recognised that the UK would be a better business environment to go through with those plans. As part of its strategy to "simplify its dual British and Dutch structure" and it will avoid the Dutch government's new 15% withholding tax – to start with.
Royal Dutch Shell's recent announcement of relocation to the UK from the Netherlands has shown that businesses have confidence in the UK, particularly because it is out of the EU's Commission-directed regulatory environment, contrary to claims that other European cities would replace London as a European financial centre.
Moreover, new Free Trade Agreements mean that the UK not only retains much of its pre-Brexit trading relationships with the rest of the world, but also develops closer trading partnerships with others, most notably Australia, New Zealand, and India. The agreements made by the DIT under Liz Truss and now Anne-Marie Trevelyan have allowed the UK to continue to enjoy the benefits of the EU's existing trade deal framework – hence remaining a globalised economy, not a nationalist hinterland that critics once suggested. Much criticism was made of the fact that some of DIT's announced trade deals were rollover deals, but they were still able to shake off the view that making a trade deal worldwide was impossible – hence the UK should remain a member. This, however, has not turned out to be the case and from Japan and New Zealand to Liechtenstein, trade deals have been made without any significant fallout.
The 'exodus' of economically significant manufacturing companies and sites that would allegedly happen did not happen, and some – such as Nissan in Sunderland or Dyson in Malmesbury – in fact expanded. Arguments about the impact that significantly longer tariffs would have on British goods, plus the bulk buying power of the EU, did not arise.
Let me address the elephant in the room, something even former EU Chief Negotiator and now Presidential candidate Michel Barnier has acknowledged: The vaccine programme. The British non-participation in the European Medicines Agency allowed for an efficient, speedy, and timely vaccination programme when the COVID-19 pandemic continued to ravage the UK – crucially saving more lives, avoiding more hospitalisations, and paving the way for recovery. This started weeks and months before the European Union's largest and most powerful members started reaching the same vaccination rates.
Within the EU, the Commission sought to step in with vaccine procurement when it looked like member states were starting to bid for their vaccines, fearing that smaller member states would be left behind by larger member states who had more bulk buying power – thus, the commission was meant to step in and use its bulk buying power to get the best price and the best vaccines the quickest. We know what happened, and of course this is a question of the Commission's competence in handling policy, but it matters, as the lack of political will to get early vaccines when it mattered most showed that the European project didn't always work as claimed – even in emergencies.
On the foreign policy stage, it would be far from accurate to say the UK has retracted from the world – or adopted a nativist policy slant. While we still have to see what Global Britain will really mean, it is clear that remaining interconnected is a part of it. The AUKUS nuclear submarine pact has shown that Britain has a significant role on the world stage, and can play that role better on its own, given that it is outside of the European Union's future defence plans and cannot be undermined by other member states. This independence in practicing foreign and defence policy shows that allies are aware and are taking note of this.
Critical bilateral and multilateral relationships on key issues such as national security, terrorism, and cross-border crime, continue to occur, and there is no evidence that Brexit undermines trust between the UK and EU member states – a sovereign nation has never been an untrustworthy nation on that basis alone.
Another unexpected benefit is the removal of the 'tampon tax' on women's sanitary products, announced by the Chancellor in March, a campaign initially launched to pressure the Cameron government to convince the EU to do so – with the UK out of the EU, the UK was able to proceed to do it quicker, without potential qualms over legal action, while the EU was seeking to introduce this bloc-wide in 2022 at earliest, with this change being held up amongst other wider bloc-wide reforms.
Outside of the EU, the UK has also been able to pursue animal welfare reforms, such as the ending of live animal exports, to go beyond EU standards, as part of the commitment to becoming a 'world leader' in animal welfare – the Northern Ireland Protocol, however, does not allow this to apply to Northern Ireland.
Past criticism that a larger bloc such as the EU is necessary for the UK's global relevance or activity on the world stage has proven untrue, even in terms of COVID PPE supplies or vaccines – where EU governments did not fare much better. The Bruges Group, especially on issues such as Article 16 and the NIP, will continue to scrutinise how the continuous Brexit process roles out – as well as what Global Britain should mean. However, looking at how things have gone so far, there have been successes, and there have been wins – and we will continue to acknowledge that.