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Brexit, now official, is the latest chapter in European integration

Britain’s challenge and opportunity post-Brexit is to define a new, effective international role.

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A view of the port of Calais Monday Jan.4, 2021 in Calais, northern France. Britain left the European bloc’s vast single market for people, goods and services, completing the biggest single economic change the country has experienced since World War II.

Michel Spingler, Associated Press

While much of the world experienced 2020 as the Year of the Pandemic, Europe has faced a second challenge: agreeing on United Kingdom withdrawal from the European Union, known by the shorthand term “Brexit.” The United Kingdom is Britain — which includes England, Scotland and Wales — plus Northern Ireland, bordering Ireland.

At the end of January 2020, the United Kingdom formally departed from the European Union. This ended the formal relationship between that nation and the regional economic organization on the continent, with the rest of the year for transition.

The basic nature of the politician includes putting off unpleasant decisions and choices as long as possible. For a business executive, such behavior invites disaster. In politics, reverse incentives often apply.

Prime Minister Theresa May, hapless predecessor of Boris Johnson, worked long and hard on the difficult details of orderly agreement for separation from the E.U., which is headquartered in Brussels.

In short, she was quite businesslike. For her pains, Britain’s Parliament, including members of her own Conservative Party, handed her successive defeats on three Brexit agreements, worked out laboriously with Brussels Eurocrats, finally forcing her from office.

Freewheeling, undisciplined successor Johnson enthusiastically put the cart before the horse, declared independence from Europe, and made a rushed trip to the continent to secure broad agreement, including the rest of the year to address the vexing details.

As is often the case in politics, officials fiddled until the last moments before pressing to secure the final agreement. Appropriately enough, the beleaguered negotiators finally clinched agreement on Christmas Eve, with a few days to spare. One important sticking point was fishing rights.

That may seem bizarre. Fishing is not an industry of central importance or one involving crucial national security. Nonetheless, agricultural interests tend to have substantial political influence, including in the United States. Fishing rights also became a potent symbol of national sovereignty, in turn a prime sentiment driving Brexit.

Since World War II, Britain’s trade has become heavily concentrated on the continent of Europe, while the British Empire came to an end and British Commonwealth faded in economic importance. Brexit, however, is not about economic realities.

Prime Minister Edward Heath deserves great credit for finally securing Britain’s belated entry into the European institutions in 1973. Earlier, he spearheaded the initial unsuccessful effort to join Europe during the government of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in the early 1960s.

People rarely mention Heath today, in contrast to the sharply defined, still-prominent name and reputation of nationalist Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Forgetting Heath mirrors the fundamental antipathy of many British toward the rest of Europe. Brexit is only the latest manifestation.

European integration was the direct product of World War II, where Britain played a pivotal, historic, strategic role after Nazi Germany conquered the continent. Insightful American and European leaders concluded new intergovernmental organization was essential to avert a third world war. In that regard, European integration has been remarkably successful.

Britain provides today a relatively open economic marketplace. The general deregulation of Prime Minister Thatcher’s government in the 1980s made the island nation a very attractive base for investment by foreign firms anxious to expand in Europe.

Britain’s challenge and opportunity post-Brexit is to define a new, effective international role. Northern Ireland, where sectarian violence has not reemerged, may provide insight.

Helping a special ally do this provides an opportunity — and challenge — for the Biden administration.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU and Palgrave/Macmillan). Contact acyr@carthage.edu