It's been a difficult time for America’s closest friend across the pond, Great Britain. There’s been the loss of Queen Elizabeth. Political turmoil that’s seen three prime ministers in less than four months. And now, like much of the world, economic upset. Add to that the stress of their divorce from the European Union, the so-called Brexit. Today, we return to the once mighty empire of England to see how the historic breakup with the EU is going, and whether the couple can still be friends.
Mark Francois is one of the most famous Brexiteers.
Mark Francois: We were able to achieve the fastest rollout of Covid vaccines in Europe because we weren't bound by EU bureaucracy.
Speaking to us in his parliamentary office in London, he says the Covid experience provided the first important mark in the Brexit success column, the first big crisis Great Britain faced on its own.
Francois: And we're now global Britain. I believe we'll be a force again on the world stage.
Francois led key conservatives who held firm and scuttled attempts to reverse Brexit. He’s written a book about all that, “Spartan Victory: The inside story of the Battle for Brexit.” “Spartans” referring to the fighting nature of the Ancient Greeks.
We first heard from Francois more than three years ago when the British were in a pitched battle over the historic breakup.
Mark Francois (September 2019): Basically, the British people were fed up of being told how to run their country by somebody else.
Sharyl: When we last spoke, you said the biggest single reason the British people voted to exit the European Union was they were tired of having other people tell them what to do. What is your reflection today on Brexit?
Mark Francois: I think that was true, and I think that's why they voted peacefully and democratically to leave. The Conservatives won a general election emphatically by 80 seats on a manifesto to deliver Brexit. We've done that. We've legally left the European Union.
There’s no denying they accomplished the impossible. What most said couldn’t be done. As for the results? On our visit to Great Britain, we found mixed reviews.
Steven Bonnar: I don't think there has been any tangible benefits of Brexit. Certainly not to the people of Scotland.
Steven Bonnar is a Scottish member of the UK parliament. He describes himself as coming from the Socialist left flank.
Sharyl: During Covid did you see a benefit, that the United Kingdom was able to call its own shots, whether it was vaccination program or anything else?
Bonnar: I mean, I think every country has managed. Some countries went quicker, some went — we had this great, absolutely fantastic, the work that was done to both find the vaccines and then roll them out. Nobody is disputing that. But that would've still happened had we been in the European Union because British brains, UK brains, Scottish scientists were behind that initiative, so that would've still been absolutely the same.
Beyond Covid, Scotland is just one example of the incredibly complex dynamics in play.
Back in 2014, Scotland voted to remain part of the United Kingdom. In 2016, Bonnar, the Scottish member of parliament we’re speaking with, campaigned for Scotland and the rest of the UK to remain in the European Union. But now that the UK has left the EU, Bonnar supports a movement to sever Scotland from the UK.
Bonnar: Scotland's trade has been decimated since we left the European Union. Our fruit and veg exports are down 50%. Scotland's biggest export, services, people, entering the European Union, absolutely decimated to the tune of 18.5 billion pounds in the first quarter. So, astronomical figures that is holding Scotland back, and I believe it is driving forward the determination for Scottish independence.
Sharyl: So, if Scotland were to withdraw from the United Kingdom, do you foresee it joining, re-joining, the European Union?
Bonnar: I think that's certainly the direction of travel. I think that is the overwhelming view of the Scottish people.
Not far from Parliament where we met with Bonnar are party offices for the Liberal Democrats. Leader Ed Davey describes the Liberal Democrats as a reformist party that wants to change things from the center.
Sharyl: You, as a politician, as well as this party, took a strong position against leaving the European Union, correct?
Ed Davey: That's correct, yes.
Sharyl: What is your assessment of where things stand today?
Davey: Well, Liberal Democrats were against Brexit, because we're internationalists. We believe in countries working together in the mutual interest. I think we've seen quite a few downsides to it. It’s now more expensive to trade with our nearest partners. It has not helped our economy. And so, I think we've seen some quite bad impacts for many, many, many, many businesses.
At a London park, speaking from the farther left is Parliament Member Stella Creasy. She spearheaded an effort to get a second vote to try to kill Brexit, but that effort failed.
Stella Creasy: Well so I'm the chair of the Labor movement for Europe, so we are looking at the problems that Brexit has caused to people in the UK. And it’s only now that the British public is starting to see the problems when they see the big queues of people at the borders trying to get across to Europe, or the increase in the cost of food that they're facing because of the impact on our supply chain, or the people who haven't been able to go and work in Europe in the way they used to be able to, or travel in Europe as freely as they used to be able to, because Brexit has happened. So it's having a little bit of a delayed effect, but unfortunately, effects are becoming very, very clear now.
Sharyl (on-camera): One unexpected outcome of all this, is that Prime Minister Boris Johnson, credited with making the impossible happen, was chased out of office after the mission was accomplished.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson (July 25, 2019): For the purpose in uniting and re-energizing our great United Kingdom and making this country the greatest place on Earth.
Over the summer, less than three years after his landslide victory, Johnson's own party gave its Brexit champion the heave-ho.
Sharyl: What happened to Boris Johnson? Because if he was swept into office in large part on the platform of Brexit and he delivered, I'm sure the American people might be a little confused as to why he's gone.
Francois: I understand that. And then I think, you know, Boris's legacy will live on. One, he delivered Brexit. He got Brexit done, and I think you can't take that away from him. What went wrong? There were difficulties in the way that he ran his government. There was rule-breaking during the lockdown. And, in the end, unfortunately, those issues became insurmountable. Under the British system, the prime minster has to be able to command the majority in the House of Commons. It got to a point where Boris could no longer practically do that, and therefore, he had to agree to stand down.
Prime Minister Johnson (July 7): It is clearly now the will of the parliamentary Conservative party that there should be a new leader of that party, and therefore a new prime minster.
David Cowling: So, he wasn't able to deliver a really good example of how we've got Brexit, and it's come out the way he said it was, you know, Britain liberated, Britain triumphant. That hasn't worked. And so then people started to say, "Well, if that hasn't worked, what's the rest of this about?" And then they looked at him, and that's been his demise, I think.
David Cowling is a senior visiting research fellow at the King’s College University in London.
Sharyl: It’s been six years since the Brexit vote. What is the current sentiment, would you say, overall?
Cowling: Well there's certainly buyer's remorse. If you look at the polling, there is a range of people who now believe that it was the wrong decision and also believe that the government hasn't handled it well.
As with many breakups, time may heal wounds. People move on.
Sharyl: Is Brexit an issue that's burning on the minds of voters or driving votes now?
Davey: It actually isn't. Clearly there are people who still think it's their number one issue, but they're in the minority. Most people are worried about, you know, putting the food on the table. Can they afford to fill up their car with petrol or diesel? They're worried about meeting their energy bills and their heating costs.
All sides seem to agree that like Brexit or not, they're stuck with it. Even the most ardent opponents find people are tired of the drama and debate. Replacing the slogan “Get Brexit Done” is a new one: “Make Brexit Work.”
Sharyl: Is there any way people who didn't want to exit the European Union can unwind it? Do you think there's any appetite for that?
Creasy: One of the things that's really important to recognize is that Europe doesn't want to have that conversation with us. They had to go through six years of negotiating and one of the things that I'm very frustrated about is I think our international reputation is really in tatters as a result of it. We have to repair that relationship, but we also have to deal with the fact that the problems we're facing are happening now.
Cowling: If you ask people who think — what they think about how it's gone, many of them will say, as I said, that they think it's gone badly. But ask those same people, "Okay, it's gone badly. Do you want to go back in?" "No." There isn't an appetite for another referendum to try and remedy for, like, what happened in 2016. So, I suppose it's a case of living with what we've got but not being very happy with the outcome.
Sharyl (on-camera): Today, there’s talk of Grexit, Frexit, Italexit, and Dexit — movements in Greece, France, Italy, and Germany to withdraw from the European Union. But everybody says that’ll never happen.