Tonight, on the 31st of January 2020, the UK will officially leave the EU. But that does not mean that the British people are anxiously counting down the time, nor that Europeans will no longer be able to study or work in the UK as of tomorrow. This is also certainly not the end of the Brexit negotiations!
This Brexit special will give a little insight into how the UK will mark their departure from the EU, but more importantly it will explain what is still to come during the negotiations over future trade relations with the EU.
It has been 1316 days since the UK voted to leave the leave the European Union, however during the past weeks the headlines of British newspapers have mainly been about ‘Megxit’ rather than Brexit. Since Boris Johnson won an overwhelming majority in parliament during the elections in December, voting over the Brexit deal has become a lot less exciting than it was before. The news that Prince Harry and his wife Meghan want to step back from their roles in the royal family (the ‘Megxit’) was a lot more exciting for most Brits.
Even when the papers did write about Brexit, the focus has recently focussed mostly on the official festivities that are planned to mark the time of leaving the EU. There will, for example, be a countdown clock on 10th Downing Street and a special Brexit 50p commemorative coin will enter circulation. However, Big Ben, the famous clock in the Elizabeth Tower at Westminster Palace, will not ring its bells at eleven o’clock when the UK leaves. Big Ben is currently being renovated and it was estimated that it would cost half a million pounds to ‘get Big Ben to bong for Brexit’, which the House of Commons therefore voted down. Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit party, has called it a ‘national humiliation’ that Big Ben won’t bong, and a fundraiser was even started to attempt to get the money together, but to no avail.
There will thus not be a bang from Big Ben tonight, but maybe that is fitting since there will not be any major changes for most people as of tonight. The UK will enter a transition period during which Britons and Europeans can still travel to and work in each other’s countries like before, and until the 31st of December, when the transition period changes, many other things will also stay the same. However, what will happen in 2021 is the topic of the continued negotiations between the UK and EU this year.
The real work for negotiators on both sides is really just about to begin. There is still a large amount of uncertainty over how the final deal will look or if there even will be a deal. For its part, the UK government is not alleviating the uncertainty as it takes steps to limit parliamentary scrutiny over proceedings by relying on traditional ministerial oversight, which is more restricted than that of previous Brexit oversight. For now, apart from both sides ensuring that they will work toward a tariff-free deal, not much is known.
Chief brexit negotiator for the EU Michell Barnier released the below graphic at the end of 2017 showing the UKs “stairway to Canada” following Brexit. In Mr. Barnier’s view, the EU’s existing rules for its different levels of partnership and the “red lines” set out by the UK government create an impasse in negotiations. The UK’s desire to “take back control” of, among other things, its immigration control and regulatory power from the EU would prevent it from entering in to any other treaty that the EU has with its other neighbouring countries. This impasse would, if taken to its extreme, mean that post Brexit EU-UK relations would be no more comprehensive than that between any other two members of the world trade organisation, which is to say not very comprehensive at all.
By leaving the EU, the UK is stepping down from the top of the stairs in the picture above. One step down from full membership would be membership in the European Economic Area (EEA) which is, for all intents and purposes, almost a full membership in the EU, only without political representation and no stated aim to pursue an “ever closer union”. In this scenario the UK would still be part of the single market and subject to all its rules, i.e. free movement of goods, services, capital and people. That’s crossing a red line for the UK, so this is unlikely to happen.
The same goes for the next step down the stairwell, Switzerland. Switzerland is not part of the EEA, but through numerous other treaties, have basically the same rights and obligations to the EU and its single market as any EEA member. Switzerland only has a bit more judicial autonomy. But here again, free movement of people is crossing a UK red line.
Another step down would be membership in treaties like the “European Eastern partnership” and the “deep and comprehensive trade agreement”, of which Ukraine is a member. Memberships in these agreements result in being subject to some EU regulation on trade and commerce as well as allowing the European court of justice to operate with limited jurisdiction. Thereby giving up some sovereignty and crossing the UK’s stated red line yet again. On the last step sits Turkey, with no regulatory obligations but as part of a common customs union with the EU, limiting its ability to unilaterally enter into trade agreements with other countries and crossing the final red line for the UK. The logical conclusion from this is that the UK will not have a close relation with the EU after the transition period. The above analysis is however, by Mr. Barnier’s own admission, a drastically simplified and, by now, two year old estimate of future EU-UK relations.
The possibility of a no-deal Brexit is thus still on the table. But a good reason for the UK to avoid a no-deal at all costs is the potentially damning consequences it could have on Northern Ireland. A no-deal here would have to be accompanied by some sort of “hard” border, meaning a traditional country to country border, with Ireland. For deeply rooted historical and religious reasons this is far from what either Dublin or London wants. There is also a strong economic argument against a no-deal Brexit, as the EU is one of the UK’s largest trading partners. If the UK no longer wants to adhere to the EU’s strict regulations and standards this would mean cutting or limiting access to the EU’s market and could threaten thousands of UK manufacturing and service jobs. As the country is already deeply divided on the issue, this might be too high a price for autonomy.
Even as the UK is leaving the EU this evening, exactly how they will leave the transition period at the end of the year is still unclear. Maybe there will be a new trade relation similar to the one that the EU has with Canada, or maybe the UK will end up leaving with a no-deal. That would certainly create much more of a bang than their official departure tonight is set to be. If the renovations of Big Ben are finished in December, the UK could even leave the transition period with a bonging Big Ben bang!
Samuel Hederen & Kerime van Opijnen