In the words of a Brussels official involved in the Brexit negotiations, last year “accelerated the mourning process” following the UK’s departure from the EU.
This does not mean that the institutions of the Union will celebrate the country’s passage from the single market and the customs union, 48 years to the day after its accession to the then European Communities on January 1, 1973. It remains a loss. devastating for the EU, whose full repercussions are not yet visible, even four and a half years after the referendum.
The success or not of the British experiment will play for many years in European domestic debates, notably the French presidential election of 2022. Yet, even among the most Anglophile civil servants and diplomats, many remain in the European quarter of the Belgian capital, there is not only an acceptance of leaving the country but a shameless relief.
The 27 EU member states have been slow to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, but, according to diplomats, how much worse would it have been with the UK as a member state?
There was initial resistance from some capitals to the concept of joint borrowing in financial markets as part of an effort to build the EU’s € 750 billion Covid Economic Stimulus Fund, more than half of which will be distributed in the form of grants rather than loans.
The Netherlands, Sweden, Austria and Denmark – called ‘the thrifty’ – have been forced to show their true colors after decades of hiding behind British clumsiness in the face of such big leaps towards convergence.
The link established between Brussels payments and respect for the rule of law between Member States – particularly relevant for Poland and Hungary – is said to have been a further problem in Whitehall, where intrusion into internal affairs has long been anathema.
It is debatable whether, in the face of the inevitable British skepticism, the concept of stimulus funds could have stolen at all. The final deal was hotly contested and messy, but how much more tortured would it have been with British involvement?
Brexit has therefore been made tolerable by events. Now that it’s done, there is nothing sentimental about Brussels approaching the future.
If it was a coincidence, he was happy that at the same meeting where EU ambassadors gave the green light to the post-Brexit trade and security deal this week, they also flagged the approval of an investment pact with China.
Although it has its critiques, the deal eases barriers for EU companies hoping to invest in China by lifting joint venture requirements as well as caps on foreign equity in the auto industry, healthcare private, ancillary services for air transport and cloud computing. China has also pledged “continuous and sustained efforts” to ratify the International Labor Organization conventions against the use of forced labor.
The French government has framed the development as the EU correcting an imbalance in the opening of the two economies, a flexing of muscles impossible for a single member state or an island nation of medium size. While Boris Johnson has spoken of a “global Britain”, Ursula von der Leyen has implemented her promise to head a “European geopolitical commission”.
None of this is to trade the Brexiter vision of an agile Britain, able to negotiate trade deals around the world that better leverage the country’s strengths in services, and financial services in particular. But that has yet to be seen in practice – and officials in Brussels are wondering both if Whitehall has the bandwidth for what’s to come and the sincerity of Johnson’s claim that his deal is finally settling. the European question in his party and in the country in general. There are far too many clues that the opposite is true.
Just look at the looming hot spots and the potential for turmoil in European obsessions. Britain now has the ability to deviate from EU environmental, social and labor regulatory standards in the future – but in doing so, it is opening itself up to tariffs on exports to its largest market. The UK could close its waters to European fishing fleets in five and a half years, but again the trade agreement foresees consequences in terms of closing the European market to British exporters. The demands for political inspiration will again face their economic consequences.
The agreement provides for a possible renegotiation of all its terms in four years if regulatory differences and tariffs create an imbalance. This would follow a likely general election in 2024. Johnson has previously claimed Sir Keir Starmer will tear up the deal to put the UK under the yoke of Brussels as Labor prime minister. Keep Brexit done, is the mantra. The campaign lines are already visible.
Meanwhile, as part of the withdrawal agreement, the Northern Ireland assembly will vote in four years on whether the region should remain in the EU’s single market. It is a debate that will easily be framed as a choice between the EU and Great Britain. The Irish government has already announced that it will fund participation in the Erasmus + student exchange program for students from Northern Ireland after the UK government chose not to pay for continued membership.
Perhaps more importantly, the question of EU membership will be at the heart of the next great political debate in the UK: Scottish independence. As the Prime Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, never tires of saying, no part of Scotland has supported Brexit. But Johnson’s deal – outside the single market and customs union – means, under EU law, that an independent Scotland, newly acceded to the EU, would have to erect a full customs border with England.
Johnson has his trade deal, and it should be relieved. But rather than removing the issue of Britain’s relationship with Europe from the British political debate, the terms of the deal put it at the center in a way unthinkable even a decade ago. And there is no obvious return.