EU Affairs

Brexit: The Ship has Sailed

The ship has sailed. This sentence probably best describes the general interest in Brexit and the state of the British opposition. Yet the important decisions are being made only now.

Failure of the negotiations becoming more likely

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The ship has sailed. This sentence probably best describes the general interest in Brexit and the state of the British opposition. Yet the important decisions are being made only now.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson won the landmark House of Commons elections last December and led his country out of the European Union on 31st January. Since then, the Brexit is no longer a spectre of political debate, but a fact.

The general interest in the UK’s withdrawal from the EU has waned noticeably on both sides of the English Channel. This is all the more true since the coronavirus pandemic has swept across Europe and its catastrophic consequences have overshadowed other events.

It is only now that the sausage, or to put it more accurately: the cod and the chlorine chicken, is really at stake.

This week, representatives of the British Government and the European Commission are meeting in numerous video conferences for their third round of negotiations. It is about shaping the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union.

As always, when it comes to the Brexit, the clock is ticking. Both sides only have until 31st December 2020 to agree on a comprehensive agreement on future relations. After that, the so-called transitional period ends and the United Kingdom reverts to the status of a third country.

Goods crossing the Channel would then have to undergo extensive checks and customs clearance, British police would no longer have access to European criminal records, European fishermen would no longer have access to British waters, airline licences, medicines and financial transactions would have to be renegotiated and reissued. In short, much of what has been taken for granted between the United Kingdom and the European Union for decades would be suspended, interrupted or prevented, with serious consequences for businesses and citizens. It is the old familiar no deal scenario that is back in play now, as long as there is no agreement on future relations.

In order to avert this scenario, both sides must overcome their differences in record time. These lie mainly in three of the eleven dossiers.

The European Commission is demanding that French, Belgian and Danish fishermen be allowed to continue operating in British waters. A demand that London has so far strictly rejected. Secondly, Brussels is demanding that London continue to support compliance with European health and safety, food and environmental standards. At the same time, however, the British side is negotiating a free trade agreement with the United States and will probably be forced to make concessions in precisely these areas. Thirdly, the British Government wishes to continue to cooperate closely with the European Union in the area of law and prosecution, but does not wish to accept the case law of the European Court of Justice. This is a demand that Brussels, in turn, cannot accept.

There is simply not enough time to bridge these differences and formulate mutually acceptable solutions. As early as June, according to the withdrawal agreement, a decision would have to be taken on a possible extension of the transitional period. The EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier had already offered such an extension, pointing out that the Corona crisis would mean delays for the negotiations and even more devastating distortions in the event of a no-deal. However, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government vehemently and categorically rule out an extension.

This refusal to even consider an extension is causing incomprehension in Brussels and among the British opposition. Phil Hogan, the European Commissioner for Trade, suspects that the strategy is based on calculated opportunism: “In my opinion, they do not want to delay the negotiations until 2021 because they can basically blame COVID-19 for everything.”

Indeed, the consequences of the Brexit after possible failed negotiations would be lost in the generally devastating consequences of the Corona pandemic and its control. A recession in the region of 1 or 2 percent, as forecast for a no deal, pales in comparison to a current forecast by the Bank of England, which predicts that the British economy could shrink by 14 percent in 2020. Cynically, this is a unique opportunity to completely hide the economic consequences of the ideological Brexit project. Ironically, the Corona crisis could therefore make a no-deal Brexit even more likely.

The British opposition, such as the liberal MP Layla Moran, is loudly advocating a prolongation, appealing to the economic rationality of Boris Johnson’s government. However, these appeals will not bear fruit. Because if Johnson and his government team were concerned about pragmatism and economic reason, they would have argued for the most pragmatic and economically sensible solution: for their country to remain in the EU. But for four years they have been fighting for the opposite, for withdrawal and maximum independence from the European Union.

Great resistance is hardly to be expected. No British Prime Minister has been in such a powerful position for a long time. Most of the resistance within their own party lost their mandates in December. The opposition is reorganising itself, has just elected new party leaders (as in the case of Labour) or has postponed this until the future (as is the case for the LibDems). Civil society has not yet found a new mission after the failure of the Remain campaign and is limited in its scope for action anyway due to the measures taken to combat the Corona crisis.

In this situation, the European Union, more precisely the negotiators and the member states, have no choice but to continue to negotiate in a united and transparent manner as it has done over the past three years. Even under the pressure of the economic consequences of the Corona crisis, the Member States should resist the temptation to pursue their interests in bilateral dialogue with London, thereby undermining the authority of the Commission. After all, the Brexit has something positive about it: the EU member states have proven to themselves and the world that they can indeed speak with one voice when it counts.



Sebastian Vagt
European Affairs Manager and Head of FNF Security Hub, FNF Brussels.