Where next following Brexit?

Two Europeans is a blog about life, politics, language, culture and travel. We took a break when the pandemic began, but we look forward to starting up again soon and we would like to wish you all a very happy and peaceful New Year. Meanwhile here’s our take on the Brexit deal and some reasons to feel optimistic about 2021.

Yesterday saw a further sad milestone in the UK’s departure from the European Union. While political Brexit happened in January, the end of the calendar year marked Britain’s exit from the Single Market – and the end of an era in which its citizens were able to live, work and do business freely in thirty countries.

Whilst depressing for all of us who will be affected by these changes, the deal agreed last week is a successful conclusion to the European Union’s handling of the Brexit process. Over the last four and a half years the EU institutions calmly and diligently pursued the common interests of the 27 member states, and did so with a level of transparency and democratic scrutiny that puts Westminster to shame. Chief negotiator Michel Barnier attended a staggering number of events around the continent where he answered questions from citizens and interest groups. The mandate he was working to was debated openly at every stage by Europe’s MEPs. Far from fragmenting as continually predicted by the hyperbolic British press, the EU remained remarkably united amid surging public support for membership across its member states.

The results are written in law for everyone to read. Europe’s top priorities were dealt with upfront in the 2019 Withdrawal Agreement: safeguarding citizens’ rights and the Irish peace process, and settling Britain’s financial obligations. Throughout, the strength of solidarity shown to Ireland – particularly by larger countries like Germany – has demonstrated to smaller member states exactly why it matters to be part of a bigger family of nations. Likewise the Trade and Cooperation Agreement unveiled this week prioritises the areas of trade that are most important to EU member states, while protecting the integrity of the Single Market. It also provides the foundation onto which a closer relationship with Britain can be rebuilt in the future – but more on that later.

The contrast with how the UK’s institutions have performed could not be starker. Having told voters in 2016 that Brexit could mean anything they wanted it to mean, Britain’s political leaders made no effort to consult or build a consensus. Rather they spent years delaying the time when they would eventually have to come clean about the choices facing the nation. While MEPs scrutinised Europe’s written negotiating guidelines, our own Members of Parliament in London were left to guess what the government may be doing and saying on our behalf – often based on Westminster media gossip. Ultimately, publication of the final Agreement was pushed into Christmas Day, for no better reason than to avoid drawing the public’s attention to the many areas where it is lacking.

One of those areas is trade in services. Many UK jobs depend upon it, yet exporting services requires some degree of freedom of movement for workers. So the government opted to sacrifice this important sector of the economy. In the words of Britain’s former EU Ambassador Sir Ivan Rogers,

De facto, the last 2 U.K. Prime Ministers are arguing for a ‘no deal’ on services. And that’s on all services, not just financial services, on which the financial stability case for divergence is demonstrably stronger. We actually export far greater volumes of non-financial services and the EU is massively our biggest market for those services. Ministers just do not ever want to tell businesses that is actually what they are doing, or tell the public why it’s a great idea.

Those words are from 2019, but they remain true. When challenged on this point in Parliament two days ago the Prime Minister chose to lie, saying that the agreement “does a great deal for services”. That was untrue. It was also untrue when he claimed on Christmas Eve that “there will be no non-tariff barriers to trade”. By placing itself outside Europe’s Single Market Britain is on the wrong side of a plethora of genuine obstacles to trade starting today, which will make it disadvantageous to buy British products.

They include the infamous rules of origin: the red tape used to determine how much of a product really comes from the country that is exporting it. Next is navigating the complex set of systems – sometimes involving laboratory tests and veterinary inspections – which are used to make sure that goods entering the market conform to the relevant standards. The Agreement offers nothing to ease these processes, though the point has scarcely been discussed in the media. Those willing to risk purchasing from a British supplier may face unquantifiable delays or even becoming financially liable for any part of the process that goes wrong. Having been given woefully inadequate notice, British companies are now scrambling to make sense of these new challenges and we will see in the coming weeks and months how they fare. But to be sure, this is not the end of Brexit as the government wishes us to believe – rather it is the beginning.

So as we look ahead, here’s a few reasons why we should keep our spirits up and continue standing up for the European future we believe in.

1. From now on it’s Project Reality

We know there are no sunlit uplands with Brexit – it is a long time since even the most loyal Leavers had anything to say about practical benefits. Rather it became a matter of getting Brexit done and honouring the result of the referendum. That chapter is now closed because Brexit has been delivered. It is for the government to be accountable for the arrangements they have put in place. Pointing out problems can no longer be dismissed as ‘project fear’; nor can voicing opposition cannot be characterised as an attempt to ‘block Brexit’. Brexit has happened. As citizens we need to stay engaged during 2021 and keep sharing good quality information about its real consequences.

2. Populism has peaked

Of course we can expect the Prime Minister and the pro-Brexit press to continue spreading falsehoods about the state of the nation. Many people will believe them – a lesson from recent years is that many people don’t much mind being lied to, and sometimes that may be enough people to win an election. But the trend is not all in one direction. Employing a similar game-plan to Johnson, Donald Trump became only the third US President in modern times to fail at re-election. That did not mean that every Trump voter changed their mind; nor will a majority of Brexit voters come to believe that they made a mistake. But as reality bites former supporters peel away, as we have seen already this week in news stories about fishing communities. It is feasible over the course of 2021 that Brexit will come to be viewed as vote-losing issue.

3. The world has moved on

In nineteen days’ time, a new US President will take office. Joe Biden is a friend to Europe and to Ireland and a believer in countries working together. He will be on a mission to heal America’s internal and external relationships, to much relief in most European capitals. We can be almost certain that his election already influenced the UK government to take more seriously its obligations on Northern Ireland as part of the Withdrawal Agreement. According to some analyses, it may also have tipped the balance in 10 Downing Street against No Deal. The challenges facing the world in the wake of the pandemic are immense and more than ever we need a stable and co-operative international order; not the aggressive rhetoric that accompanied Britain’s anachronistic Brexit. We can hope and expect that external pressure will continue to push our government in a more moderate direction.

4. We can rebuild

Lastly, there are some seeds of hope in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement itself which has many ways to dis-incentivise divergence from European norms. If Britain tilts the level playing field, the deal allows for immediate and decisive action across the relationship. It also puts in place a weighty governance structure through which Britain and the EU will continue to manage their relationship in the years ahead; in fact they commit to take stock and rebalance it every five years. It comprises a Partnership Council with no fewer than 23 topic-specific committees and working groups feeding into it. Seen together this architecture is like a fuse box, to which more components could be plugged in in the future. Currently it is populated only with the areas that the current UK government wanted to co-operate on, but the Commission has devised a structure with an eye to future governments seeking to get closer to Europe again.

Our next task as British EU advocates will be to build consensus, one piece at a time, for successive governments to add back into the relationship more of the freedoms and collaboration that we valued as members. The good news is that Best for Britain has already started the ball rolling with this top ten menu of priorities.

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