No, of course the past few weeks—like the past few months, and the past few years—of Brexit drama have not made much sense. In economic terms, not a lot about Brexit ever has.
Britain and the European Union have in recent days been locked in talks to conclude one of the most important trade agreements ever negotiated. As a New Year deadline approached, after which, absent a deal, the two sides would impose tariffs and restrictions on each other’s goods and services, compromises appear to have been found on long-running areas of disagreement, including how future disputes might be managed and how to reconcile diverging rules and regulations managing their respective economies. A deal has finally been reached.
Until the end, though, one sticking point remained: fish. And so a trade deal between the fifth-biggest economy on Earth and the world’s largest free-trade bloc was nearly derailed on several occasions because of a dispute over whose fishermen could catch what fish, in what numbers, for how long, and in whose waters.
Brexit was always stupid, the great and the good have repeatedly told us—by which they usually meant that it was stupid for Britain—but this negotiation seemed extraordinarily so. According to its many critics, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was placing ephemeral and outdated notions of sovereignty above the reality of 21st-century trade. What sense was there in demanding full regulatory control over the British economy if its biggest market, the EU, restricted access to its hundreds of millions of customers as a result? What sense was there in risking the U.K.’s entire economy over fish? Each year, Britain exports just short of £300 billion, or about $400 billion, worth of goods and services to the EU—more than 40 percent of everything it sells abroad. Of this, fish sales are worth a little more than £1 billion, or a third of 1 percent of the total. Britain was thus threatening to make more than 99 percent of its trade with the EU more difficult and expensive, just to defend the remaining fraction. Really?