The UK’s landmark EU referendum took place five years ago this week, but the nation’s relationship with Europe remains in flux and is likely to remain so for years, if not decades, to come in what has been called “Brexiternity.”

Seen from the vantage point of today, it is clear that the referendum — in which UK voters decided that the country should leave the EU by a 52-48 margin — was a seminal moment in British and indeed wider European postwar history. However, far from being a single, isolated event, Brexit should be seen as a process made up of multiple negotiations (a catch-all term used here for formal diplomatic discussions and wider debates), including within the UK, between the EU and the UK, and within the EU about its future.

Since 2016, much attention has focused on intra-UK debates about Brexit and it is clear that the referendum was a trigger for a series of profound changes to the nation’s unity, constitution, identity, political economy, and place in the world. However, the vote also began a series of negotiations elsewhere in the EU, given the challenges, and also the opportunities, that the UK’s departure has meant for the Brussels-based club.

While there has been much change in the last half-decade, including last December’s EU-UK trade and cooperation deal, the Brexit saga is by no means at an end. This is vividly illustrated by the current troubles surrounding the Northern Ireland Protocol, which are seeing tensions increase between the UK and the EU-27.

So as much as December’s UK-EU deal was a milestone, the new relationship between London, Brussels and the 27 member states will continue to evolve for some time to come. This is because the existing trade deal is only a “skinny” agreement compared to the much more comprehensive one promised by many Brexiteers ahead of the 2016 referendum.

It is therefore likely that the rest of this decade and potentially beyond will see a series of further UK-EU bilateral deals to fashion the new institutional relationship, possibly including reform of the Northern Ireland Protocol. Far from getting Brexit “done” in 2019 and 2020, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson frequently asserts, this points to UK-EU negotiations and internal political wrangling continuing for years.

This is one of the great ironies of the UK’s vote to leave the EU. That is, despite the majority of the population apparently voting to cut ties with the EU in 2016, London has since had to devote huge attention to Europe as it negotiated the exit terms — more so then perhaps almost all previous postwar administrations.

Five years on from the Brexit referendum, the country’s long-term relationship with the EU is still far from completely defined, despite the massive efforts of recent years. Moreover, views on the relationship (or “model”) the nation wishes to have with Brussels could well change significantly over time, in a more or less integrationist direction, as political and public opinion evolves.

In practice, there are a wide range of different models that could be followed, with one caveat. The one option that is probably not open to the UK at this stage is returning as a full EU member with the uniquely favorable position it once had, with all the benefits of the single market but not being part of the euro zone, and with a big budgetary rebate. Should London ever seek to return to the fold in the future, those terms would most likely not be offered up by Brussels and the EU-27.

Beyond this, the stark reality is that existing agreements with the EU vary widely, from Norway to Switzerland and Canada to Turkey. All have a mix of advantages and disadvantages, including the fact that none of them provide full access to services, which accounts for about 80 percent of the UK economy, while those with access to (let alone membership of) the single market without EU membership pay a significant price.

Take the example of Norway, proposed by many after 2016 as the best model for the UK to adopt, which sees Oslo have considerable access to the single market. In exchange, Norway is required to adhere to EU rules without having a vote on them as EU members do; accept free movement of people; make contributions to EU programs and budgets; and is still required to do customs checks on goods crossing into the EU.

Taken together, all of this is why London may, ironically, now need to devote at least as much of its attention to the EU in the coming years as pre-2016, when it was a member. This is compounded by the fact that, despite all of this effort, the relationship the UK now has may not be better for its national interest than the one previously offered in 2016 — of continued membership in a potentially reformed EU.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.
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