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It’s 24 June, 2025, and Britain is marking its annual Independence Day celebration. As the fireworks stream through the summer sky, still not quite dark, we wonder why it took us so long to leave. The years that followed the 2016 referendum didn’t just reinvigorate our economy, our democracy and our liberty. They improved relations with our neighbours.
The United Kingdom is now the region’s foremost knowledge-based economy. We lead the world in biotech, law, education, the audio-visual sector, financial services and software. New industries, from 3D printing to driverless cars, have sprung up around the country. Older industries, too, have revived as energy prices have fallen back to global levels: steel, cement, paper, plastics and ceramics producers have become competitive again.
The EU, meanwhile, continues to turn inwards, clinging to its dream of political amalgamation as the euro and migration crises worsen. Its population is ageing, its share of world GDP shrinking and its peoples protesting. “We have the most comprehensive workers’ rights in the world”, complains Jean-Claude Juncker, who has recently begun in his second term as President of the European Federation, “but we have fewer and fewer workers”.
The last thing most EU leaders wanted, once the shock had worn off, was a protracted argument with the United Kingdom which, on the day it left, became their single biggest market. Terms were agreed easily enough. Britain withdrew from the EU’s political structures and institutions, but kept its tariff-free arrangements in place. The rights of EU nationals living in the UK were confirmed, and various reciprocal deals on healthcare and the like remained. For the sake of administrative convenience, Brexit took effect formally on 1 July 2019, to coincide with the mandates of a new European Parliament and Commission.
That day marked, not a sudden departure, but the beginning of a gradual reorientation. As the leader of the Remain campaign, Lord Rose, had put it during the referendum campaign, “It’s not going to be a step change, it’s going to be a gentle process.” He was spot on.
In many areas, whether because of economies of scale or because rules were largely set at global level, the UK and the EU continued to adopt the same technical standards. But, from 2019, Britain could begin to disapply those regulations where the cost of compliance outweighed any benefits.
The EU’s Clinical Trials Directive, for example, had wiped out a great deal of medical research in Britain. Outside it, we again lead the world. Opting out of the EU’s data protection rules has turned Hoxton into the software capital of the world. Britain is no longer hampered by Brussels restrictions on sales, promotions and e-commerce.
Other EU regulations, often little known, had caused enormous damage. The REACH Directive, limiting the import of chemical products, had imposed huge costs on manufacturers. The bans on vitamin supplements and herbal remedies had closed down many health shops. London’s art market had been brutalised by EU rules on VAT and retrospective taxation. All these sectors have revived.
Financial services are booming – not only in London, but in Birmingham, Leeds and Edinburgh too. Eurocrats had never much liked the City, which they regarded as parasitical. Before Brexit, they targeted London with regulations that were not simply harmful but, in some cases, downright malicious: the Alternative Investment Fund Managers Directive, the ban on short selling, the Financial Transactions Tax, the restrictions on insurance. After Britain left, the EU’s regulations became even more heavy-handed, driving more exiles from Paris, Frankfurt and Milan. No other European city could hope to compete: their high rates of personal and corporate taxation, restrictive employment practices and lack of support services left London unchallenged.
Other cities, too, have boomed, not least Liverpool and Glasgow, which had found themselves on the wrong side of the country when the EEC’s Common External Tariff was phased in in the 1970s. In 2016, the viability of our commercial ports was threatened by the EU’s Ports Services Directive, one of many proposed rules that was being held back so as not to boost the Leave vote. Now, the UK has again become a centre for world shipping.
Shale oil and gas came on tap, almost providentially, just as the North Sea reserves were depleting, with most of the infrastructure already in place. Outside the EU, we have been able to augment this bonanza by buying cheap Chinese solar panels. In consequence, our fuel bills have tumbled, boosting productivity, increasing household incomes and stimulating the entire economy.
During the first 12 months after the vote, Britain confirmed with the various countries that have trade deals with the EU that the same deals would continue. It also used that time to agree much more liberal terms with those states which had run up against EU protectionism, including India, China and Australia. These new treaties came into effect shortly after independence. Britain, like the EFTA countries, now combines global free trade with full participation in EU markets.
Our universities are flourishing, taking the world’s brightest students and, where appropriate, charging accordingly. Their revenues, in consequence, are rising, while they continue to collaborate with research centres in Europe and around the world.
The number of student visas granted each year is decided by MPs who, now that they no longer need to worry about unlimited EU migration, can afford to take a long-term view. Parliament sets the number of work permits, the number of refugee places and the terms of family reunification. A points-based immigration system invites the world’s top talent; and the consequent sense of having had to win a place competitively means that new settlers arrive with commensurate pride and patriotism.
Unsurprisingly, several other European countries have opted to copy Britain’s deal with the EU, based as it is upon a common market rather than a common government. Some of these countries were drawn from EFTA (Norway, Switzerland and Iceland are all bringing their arrangements into line with ours). Some came from further afield (Serbia, Turkey, Ukraine). Some followed us out of the EU (Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands).
The United Kingdom now leads a 22-state bloc that forms a free trade area with the EU, but remains outside its political structures. For their part, the EU 24 have continued to push ahead with economic, military and political amalgamation. They now have a common police force and army, a pan-European income tax and a harmonised system of social security. These developments have prompted referendums in three other EU states on whether to copy Britain.
Perhaps the greatest benefit, though, is not easy to quantify. Britain has recovered its self-belief. As we left the EU, we straightened our backs, looked about us, and realised that we were still a nation to be reckoned with: the world’s fifth economy and fourth military power, one of five members on the UN Security Council and a leading member of the G7 and the Commonwealth. We recalled, too, that we were the world’s leading exporter of soft power; that our language was the most widely studied on Earth; that we were linked by kinship and migration to every continent and archipelago. We saw that there were great opportunities across the oceans, beyond the enervated eurozone. We knew that our song had not yet been sung.
Daniel Hannan is a Conservative MEP and author of Why Vote Leave published by Head of Zeus