Paul James Cardwell, Professor of Law, University of Strathclyde, Visiting Professor at Sciences Po Grenoble (2021)
The UK’s departure from the EU has marked its first birthday, though in the context of the pandemic, the actual event seems like a lifetime ago. The end of January 2021 also marked the end of the first month of the new EU-UK relationship, under the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). The text of the TCA was agreed on 24 December 2020 and signed on 30 December 2020. Its ratification by the UK, via the European Union (Future Relationship) Act 2020, took place with only one day for debate in both chambers of Parliament. It received Royal Assent – and hence entered into force – on 31 December 2020. The TCA applies provisionally before a decision of the Council of the EU, having obtained the consent of the European Parliament. The latter remains one to watch.
EU-UK relations in the first month of ‘independence’
Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, declared the TCA to be ‘a fair and balanced agreement’ that would allow Europe ‘to leave Brexit behind us and look to the future.’ Boris Johnson, UK Prime Minister, said that the TCA allows the UK ‘to take back control of our laws, borders, money, trade and fisheries’ and that the relationship has changed from one based on EU law ‘to free trade and friendly cooperation.’
One month on, it seems that neither of these statements has come true. In fact, EU-UK relations appear to be at their lowest ebb at any point since the start of the Brexit process. The refusal of the UK government to afford full diplomatic status to the EU Ambassador in London, diverting from the practice of most countries around the world, appears weak in its reasoning and counterproductive. The impact of this decision, echoing one made (and then reversed) by President Trump, was noted widely across the EU and characterised by Josep Borrell, High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy as ‘not a friendly signal’.
Besides the difficulties relating to the new trading relationship, much attention has been paid to the hastily announced decision before Christmas that the UK would no longer be part of Erasmus+, a decision much lamented on both sides of the channel, and overshading the decision to remain associated with the Horizon Europe research programme. The same can also be said of the music industry, and a blame game as to which side was responsible for failing to agree measures to facilitate visa-free touring schemes. The UK government then admitted in Parliament that it did not accept the EU’s broad offer because it ‘would not have been compatible with the Government’s manifesto commitment to take back control of our borders’.
Worse still, the divergence in policy and practice between the UK on one side, and the EU and its Member States on the other has been in full view over the supply of Covid-19 vaccines. Le Monde went as far as to call it ‘la guerre des vaccins entre Londres et Bruxelles’, which brought into sharp focus not only the (expected) post-Brexit difficulties relating to cross-border trade but the possibility of restrictions on trade between the EU and the UK as a third country in times of national and international emergencies. Tensions were not helped by the suggestion – quickly withdrawn after swift condemnation in Dublin, Belfast and London – by the European Commission to trigger a safeguard clause in the Northern Ireland protocol preventing EU vaccine exports to Northern Ireland.
Adjusting to the ‘new normal’
Anyone with a basic knowledge of the workings of the EU, the single market and customs union would be able to foresee that leaving these institutions and frameworks would lead to an inevitable turning back of the clock. The physical representations of expected problems at borders – particularly the cross-channel, Dover-Calais routes – in fact occurred before Christmas due to Covid-19 restrictions on travel to France rather than Brexit per se. But the comparative lack of visible chaos in the New Year at the border masks the emergence of longer-term problems which cannot merely be dismissed as ‘teething problems’.
The fishing industry is a case in point. Although its economic importance to the UK is small (approximately 0.1% of GDP), it has played an emblematic role in the Vote Leave narrative of an island, sea-faring nation ‘reclaiming its independence’ from the EU and the Common Fisheries Policy. Yet, the assurances given to the industry about the ease of trade under the new EU-UK agreement have done anything but provide certainty. Exporters have found themselves unable to export to the EU and facing considerable non-tariff barriers, and are now seeking alternative means to sell to the EU, including landing catches at EU ports.
For Scotland’s substantial fishing industry, this failure to protect the industry has provided fertile ground for proponents of independence. There is little prospect of the difficulties in the new relationship being resolved since it is not fully clear how the problems can be crystallised into ones where solutions can be found. The British government’s Fisheries Minister herself admitted that she has not read the terms of the Brexit bill before Christmas (but has not resigned over it). The reaction of another senior government Minister (the Leader of the House of Commons) Jacob Rees-Mogg MP was to state in Parliament that fish are ‘better and happier’ because they are ‘now British’ after Brexit has not inspired confidence in the industry or beyond that solutions can be found.
Elsewhere, numerous accounts of companies being unable to find their way through the multiples sets of paperwork abound. Individual consumers are now finding themselves liable for charges on products imported from the EU or prevented from importing altogether. Some smaller businesses in both the UK and the EU have stopped exporting due to the delays, paperwork and lower ability to absorb costs. Freight companies report that half of goods vehicles are returning empty from the UK because of the potential delays caused by increased but uncertain bureaucracy relating to exports and imports. The county of Kent, which includes the Port of Dover and is known as the ‘Garden of England’, is finding itself a building site for rapidly constructed structures to house lorries dealing with customs paperwork and freight delays.
The pandemic and lack of the possibilities of international travel have muted many of the travel-related Brexit effects. The end of free movement in both directions between the EU and UK will not be fully experienced until later, though accounts are already emerging of the serious individual consequences of attempting to exercise rights that no longer apply.
The experience of cross-channel lorry drivers having their ham and cheese sandwiches confiscated by customs officers in the Netherlands points to a markedly different travel experience in the future. As the Dutch officer in this case said, ‘Welcome to the Brexit, sir’.
The (dis)United Kingdom?
Much of the immediate impact of the post-Brexit environment has been felt in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland special status under the Brexit agreement is designed to maintain its open border with Ireland, but necessarily involves new checks on goods between the mainland UK. These have now been admitted by the UK government to being more than ‘teething problems’ but, as Politico reported, Northern Ireland continues to experience ‘Groundhog Day’ in negotiations on its position. No solution has emerged, or is even theoretically possible, which would maintain an open border with Ireland (and hence the EU) and the rest of the UK.
The suspension of paperwork checks due to threats to the physical safety of port employees undertaking their roles is a stark reminder of Northern Ireland’s troubled history and the need to ensure and consolidate the peace process and Good Friday Agreement. The future of Northern Ireland’s constitutional status has been highlighted by a January 2021 opinion poll suggested that 51% of the population of Northern Ireland supported a referendum (‘Border Poll’) on reunification with Ireland in the next five years.
Arguments around Scottish independence are likely to dominate debate during 2021. Elections to the Scottish Parliament are due to be held in May 2021, where the Scottish National Party (SNP) is predicted to easily win a majority and remain in government. The SNP is committed to seeking independence from the UK and joining the EU, pointing to Scotland’s strong remain vote in the 2016 referendum. It is planning to use its expected victory to push for a further independence referendum on the basis that Brexit has been a significant change since the previous ‘Indyref’ in 2014, where the ‘No’ vote won with 55% of the vote. Opinion polls throughout 2020 have consistently demonstrated a lead for a ‘yes’ vote. Consent for a referendum needs to be given by the Westminster government, which has started to promote – without irony – the strength of the Union (that is, of the UK) as a benefit for Scotland.
In the meantime, the Scottish government has attempted to seek ways to remain as close to the EU as possible. This includes the Erasmus+ scheme, which has attracted the support of 150 Members of the European Parliament, a call which has been echoed by the Welsh government. In Wales, opinion polls have started to show an increase in support for independence too, though far below the levels seen in Scotland. The Times has nevertheless characterised these trends as representing a ‘Union in Crisis’.
How much of these shifts can be attributed to Brexit or longer-term changes in identity remains a matter of debate, but one which will likely remain a permanent fixture on the political scene – causing headaches for both the Conservative and Labour parties in terms of how to respond. So far, the response by both has been to wave the Union Flag as prominently as possible. As far as whether the UK was right or wrong to leave the EU, public opinion shifted towards regret in late 2017 but has since remained stable. A ‘rejoin’ movement is likely to take some time to gain significant traction in either the population or the political sphere.
Brexit as an event, and a process
Brexit as an event must be contrasted from Brexit as a process. The former happened on 31 January 2020 and, arguably more definitely, on 31 December 2020. But Brexit as a process is one which is likely to prove a neverending cycle of rapprochements, spats, agreements and renewal of those agreements. From the highest political levels to those of the individual citizen and consumer, the effects of Brexit are likely to be felt as a culmination of minor issues: customs charges, airport queues, paperwork as much as the absence from the institutional mechanisms across all the areas where EU has competence. The scaling back of ambitions for an EU-UK partnership, for example in foreign and security policy, since the referendum might start to be reversed. But to do so will require a major rethink of the path that the UK has embarked on.
As for the EU, in the words of Ursula Von der Leyen, it is time to start leaving Brexit behind and focus on pressing problems within the EU, and exploring whether the absence of the UK will lead to greater coherence, integration and realising of ambitions. Welcome to the Brexit.