"Brexit has failed!" This is what Nigel Farage, the politician who was the cheerleader for Britain leaving the European Union, said in a television interview in May.
This month, it was the turn of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the man who railroaded Brexit through the parliament, to echo Farage. In his newspaper column, he wrote, "we are still being held in the gravitational pull of the EU."
For a brief moment, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak seemed to amplify that echo with a tweet that implied the UK was still part of the EU. (Needless to say the tweet was hastily corrected.)
Well, has Brexit failed?
It depends on what we mean by Brexit, a catch-all shibboleth that, like other shibboleths, could be interpreted any which way. If we go by its simplest meaning, that is to say ceasing to be a member of the European Union, Brexit has succeeded. The UK is no longer a member of a club to which it had belonged for more than four decades and played a leading role in shaping and reshaping it.
However, if we go by the numerous promises, not say fantasies, that Brexit was loaded with, it has been, to put it mildly, not a great success.
The first promise was to "take control of our borders", something which already existed. No one could enter the UK without having his passport checked.
Under the Lisbon Treaty, European Union citizens were allowed to enter the UK without a visa and stay for three months, at the end of which they could remain only if they had a job or were bona fide students. Citizens of some EU member states such as Romania and Bulgaria, however, were exempted and still required to apply for residency after the three-month deadline.
The Labour Party government under Tony Blair chose to ignore all those caveats, helping the UK benefit from a large source of young and inexpensive workers that contributed to a high growth rate in a service-based economy.
The second big promise offered by Farage and Johnson, among other Brexiteers, was "bringing immigration under control."
Everyone knew that the code-word "immigration" wasn't really targeted at Europeans but at Africans and Asians. But to have openly identified the target would have courted opprobrium and the charge of racism.
At any rate, that promise hasn't been fulfilled.
The latest statistics show that the number of immigrants to the UK has increased by between 15 and 20 percent, according to different estimates. The difference is that the number of white EU arrivals has fallen, while the number of "visible minorities" has grown, to the chagrin of those who felt threatened by "dark-skinned" cashiers at supermarkets in Sunderland.
Leaving aside control of borders and curbing immigration, Brexit became a vehicle for all sorts of fantasies. The UK was to regain its imperial role as leader of the Commonwealth, albeit in the service of world peace and prosperity. Creative trade agreements were to be signed with the United States, China, Japan and any other nation that recognized the advantages of having the UK as partner.
Needless to say, that hasn't happened.
The only major trade agreement the UK has signed has been with the same old, disliked, EU -- and largely on Brussels' terms. To rub it all in, the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland "provides that aspects of EU law continue to apply in Northern Ireland despite it having left the EU with the rest of the UK."
Even under the original agreement, the UK adopted a large number of EU laws and regulations as its own domestic laws, often with "mostly technical adjustments." Some adopted EU laws have a sunset clause, meaning they would be terminated at a fixed date, mostly between the end of 2023 and 2027 unless the UK Parliament decides to prolong their applicability.
Another promise was to end the authority of the European Court of Human Rights, a body initially promoted by the UK. That hasn't happened because the UK, remaining a member of the Council of Europe, is still bound by the court's rulings on a number of issues.
Brexit has also ended UK's membership of the Erasmus program, under which EU members exchange university students.
That has deprived UK universities of billions of dollars in foreign student fees, not to mention the benefits of cultural contact at academic level. At the same time, UK students are kept out of European universities and the benefits that cross-cultural contact offers. In 2019, over 50,000 UK students participated in Erasmus exchanges.
To correct that, a number of UK and EU universities have decided to revive the scheme with bilateral accords. For example, the Universities of Birmingham, in the UK, and Grenoble in France, operating their own exchange scheme.
Despite Brexit, the UK has not withdrawn from the European Space Agency, thus maintaining access to a raft of cutting-edge technology.
Brexit has also kept the UK out of joint banking ventures with EU in many domains. But a recent joint venture with the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development to help Moldova shows that case-by-case cooperation isn't ruled out.
Needless to say that Brexit hasn't delivered the economic advantages that its advocates promised. The UK's inflation rate is higher than any EU country and its economic growth rate is lower. Part of that, of course, could be blamed on the pandemic and the global recession that started almost at the same time as the UK left the EU.
One, perhaps unintended, consequence of Brexit is the de-emphasizing of UK's European identity. Latest statistics show that the number of UK children and youths wishing to learn European languages has fallen by 25 percent, with the biggest drops concerning French and German.
Instead, the number of young Britons learning Mandarin has almost tripled. The numbers learning Punjabi, Arabic and Turkish have also increased.
This is no surprise and perhaps would have happened even without Brexit. In the UK today, more than 25 percent of children have foreign mothers. (In London it is 52 percent). Of every ten British children, one is a Muslim-born citizen. In a decade or two, "little Englanders" may even be a minority as a new globalized society takes shape.
Talleyrand would have described Brexit as "an unnecessary move" which, in his opinion, is worse than making a mistake.
Brexit was an exercise in applying the principle of lottery to politics; you draw a lot, not knowing what fate has allotted you.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.
This article originally appeared in Asharq Al-Awsat and is reprinted with some changes by kind permission of the author.