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1 February, 2021  ▪  Michael Binyon

Life after divorce

How official exit from the European Union has affected the United Kingdom

Brexit is finally done. After almost 50 years of membership of the European Union, Britain is now on its own – outside the customs union and the single market, cut off from EU development funds and with no automatic access to European banking, finance and insurance markets. Instead, Britain can set its own rules on immigration, trade and relations with the rest of the world. But for many Britons, including those who voted in 2016 to become the first country to leave the EU, the future looks uncertain, bleak and poorer.

 It was a close run thing. After almost a year of desultory negotiations and political polemics, Britain came within days of crashing out of the union without any trade deal or framework for future relations. Neither side was ready to make concessions on the final two sticking points: unfair competition and fishing. The EU was determined not to allow Britain to turn into an “offshore Singapore” – a low-tax regime, with few environmental or bureaucratic regulations, that would allow firms to produce goods more cheaply and flood the EU market. On fishing, Britain did not want European fishing companies to have access to British waters, over which the government claimed it wanted to take back full sovereignty.

  In mid-December, it looked as though the entire deal would collapse because of the impasse on fishing quotas – an industry that in Britain accounts for around 0.02 of its total output. Boris Johnson, the prime minister, said he was ready to walk away from the negotiations. British firms were advised to stockpile imports from Europe. Exporters were told they would suffer massive new tariffs on goods destined for Europe, making their exports uncompetitive. Travellers were warned of long delays at ports and airports and told they might not be able to drive their cars abroad and could be arrested if they tried to engage in business in Europe without a visa.

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  In the end it was probably the coronavirus that rescued the deal. In mid-December British scientists and health officials announced that a mutant strain of the virus had been discovered which was about 70 per cent more infectious and was already leading to a rapid rise in covid-19 cases, especially in the region closest to France. France responded on 20th December by suddenly closing its borders to all traffic from the United Kingdom, provoking an immediate crisis. Thousands of trucks converged on Dover, the main port for the crossing to Calais, and were forced to park on the main roads or were diverted into fields. Without food, toilets or any hope of reaching home before Christmas, drivers from all over Europe were left stranded with their vehicles.

  It suddenly became obvious to the British public that this would go on for weeks if there was no deal on Brexit. Without agreement on customs regulations or trade quotas, British lorries would be held up indefinitely. Exports would come to a stand-still and vital supplies of medicines, food and industrial supplies would be cut off. There was uproar in Britain. Was this what Brexit now meant? The pressure on Johnson to do a deal immediately rose sharply.

   The government reacted swiftly. Round-the-clock talks with France began on reopening the French ports. At first Paris allowed in only French citizens but then agreed to allow all drivers to enter – but only if they took a covid test to prove they were virus-free. Johnson then took personal control of the Brexit talks, and flew to Brussels to meet Ursula von der Leyen, the EU Commission president. They had a dinner (of fish, appropriately) but still could not find agreement on fishing. The official British and EU negotiators were sidelined, and Johnson and von der Leyen extended the deadline and negotiated further by phone. Finally, on 24 December, the necessary compromises were agreed and the deal was done. The country breathed a huge sigh of relief.

  With lightning speed, Britain’s parliament debated the terms and passed the deal, which consisted of more than 1,200 pages of detailed regulations on every aspect of future relations, in only a single day after Christmas. The Labour party reluctantly agreed to support the government. Sir Keir Starmer, the party leader, said it was a “thin” deal but was better than no deal. The Scottish members of parliament all voted against the agreement as Scotland did not support Brexit in the 2016 referendum, and several other anti-Brexit liberals also opposed it.

  In many ways, Britain has been given terms more favourable to its trade and relations with the EU than many people feared. There will be no quotas on how much the two sides can trade with each other, nor will there be any tariffs. British exporters face a great deal more paperwork, however, and will need certificates to prove that their goods comply with EU standards. Customs checks will take far longer.

 The main long-term effect of Brexit, however, will be more political than economic. Britain will be free to set its own foreign policy goals, to negotiate new trade treaties with other countries and to set its own standards and regulations on almost all aspects of daily life. In some ways, Britain will be diminished: it will carry less weight in Washington, as it will no longer be seen as a bridge to Europe. In any case, the Biden Administration will be less supportive of Brexit – which Biden thinks a bad idea – and will not negotiate an advantageous new trade agreement. As a member of the UN Security Council, Britain will also be less influential compared to the other European member, France, which will represent the rest of Europe. On the other hand Britain will be free to take initiatives on its own, such as convening the climate change conference in Glasgow this year, or taking a tougher line towards China. In one area, Brexit has already allowed Britain to move faster: It has vaccinated more people against covid-19 than any EU country, having approved the vaccines earlier and started a mass programme of inoculation more speedily. More than two million Britons have already been vaccinated; in France not more than a few hundred have received the vaccine.

  The government has also moved quickly to ensure that normal trade continues with other countries, having already signed deals with countries such as Turkey and Ukraine, where the agreement with Kyiv last year marked a big increase in bilateral defence and political cooperation, as well as trade.

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Most people in Britain have noticed little difference since Brexit came into force – mainly because they are preoccupied with the fight against covid-19 and the alarming rise in infections. There has so far been little travel to Europe and not much trade across the English Channel, because of the quarantine restrictions on anyone flying overseas and also because many British companies have already stocked up on imports from the EU, fearing there would not be a deal.

 Those who opposed Brexit have now reluctantly accepted that it cannot now be reversed, and the task now is to make as many separate bilateral deals with Brussels as possible so that links can continue where possible, especially in such areas as police cooperation, environmental protection and student exchanges. Already, however, the polls have shown that a majority of voters now think that Brexit was a mistake and regret leaving the EU. A small group has already been started to campaign for Britain to rejoin the EU. But after all the turmoil, bitterness and political controversy, it will be many, many years before such a thing could be possible. 

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