Zirpoli: Great Britain, Brexit, and the lessons of nationalism | COMMENTARY

With all the chaos within our own nation during the past year, Americans may not have been paying attention to some consequential international events. Many have significant implications for the American people, directly and indirectly.

For example, 2021 brought us a final Brexit deal between Britain and the European Union. The Brexit movement started in June 2016 when the people in Britain voted 52% to 48% to leave the European Union. It was their “Britain First” moment that they now seem to regret. Before the vote, polls showed that a majority of the people in Britain did not want to leave the European Union, but many of them did not vote because they did not take the vote seriously. Leave the European Union? Why would anyone want to do that?


In America, under the previous administration, we were in the middle of our own anti-globalism movement. We dropped out of the Paris Climate Change Agreement, the World Health Organization, tore up the nuclear weapons agreement with Iran, and slapped tariffs on imports from our international trading partners. The goal of the tariffs was to reduce America’s trade deficit. As predicted by many, however, it had the opposite effect. According to Doug Palmer, writing for Politico, America’s trade deficit hit a record high of $678 billion in 2020 compared to $502 billion in 2016, the year before the previous administration took office.

In England, the nationalists didn’t want to follow the rules of the European Union, even though the rules benefited all of Europe, including themselves. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, elected after Brexit was approved by voters, promised as part of his campaign to “get Brexit done and unleash Britain’s potential.” But British businesses had become dependent on global supply chains and trade across the European Union had increased economic development and stability.


Be careful what you wish for. The people who showed up at the polls and voted to leave the EU did not understand the true implications of their vote, it seems. As the reality of Brexit come into focus, however, they are beginning to understand how dependent they were on free trade.

As part of the EU, the people of Britain could come and go to other counties without issues. Indeed, many of them worked in other nations, attended school in other nations, or traded with other nations — freely. Now, because they are no longer a member of the EU, none of these things are the same. Arj Singh, writing for The New York Times, stated how “an avalanche of bureaucracy, red tape, controls, and checks and unforeseen consequences have left many businesses struggling to adapt.”

Truckers carrying parts and supplies are now held up at border crossings that did not exist pre-Brexit. Truckers traveling to the Netherlands had their ham sandwiches, packed for lunch, confiscated by the Dutch because pork products can’t be imported from non-European nations.

Fisherman in Britain are seeing their exports rot at the borders or at seaports. No longer members of the EU, imports, and exports are no longer just a matter of driving across the border to floating into another nation’s harbor. Now, stores in Britain can’t get many of the products they once easily imported and sold.

Imports and exports now have new fees attached to them. This makes many things more expensive for businesses and consumers. According to Stanley Reed of The New York Times, British importers, like Aston Chemicals, now need to “pay tariffs on products made in the United States or Asia, and then again when it distributes them to the European Union, effectively doubling the rates” The company has decided to move to Poland, a member of the EU, to more efficiently and cheaply export their products.

Writing for The New York Times, Jack Ewing explains that “80 percent of the cars produced in Britain are sold abroad.” The industry employs 168,000 people in Britain. “The pact will create more customs paperwork and slow down supply chains while creating disincentives for global carmakers to continue investing in British factories,” writes Ewing.

Many British companies are moving and relocating to an EU member state where they can trade freely again, as they did before Brexit. Thus, many British jobs are moving out of the country and, as a kind of double jeopardy, the workers can no longer easily move with the company.

The citizens of Britain are getting a crash course on why the European Union was established in the first place. Then there is that other lesson:  Elections have consequences.


Tom Zirpoli is the program coordinator of the Human Services Management graduate degree at McDaniel College. He writes from Westminster and his column appears on Wednesdays. Email him at