A fairly significant anniversary passed almost unnoticed last month. Just over 4 years ago, in June 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Known colloquially as ‘Brexit’, the departure is arguably the most important constitutional shake-up the UK has known since it first joined the six-nation European Economic Community in 1973. It is also the first time the European institution will have lost a member.
The referendum allowing British citizens to decide whether to remain or leave followed decades of increasing hostility to the European project in the United Kingdom, fuelled in part by the exponential growth of EU membership – from 6 in 1973 to 28 in 2016, the perception that the body was staffed by fat cats on mega salaries and a frustration with too much decision-making in Brussels, impinging on British interests and traditional industries.
The vote revealed strains between the UK's individual countries: England (53%) and Wales (52.5%) voted to leave, whereas Scotland and Northern Ireland voted by 62% and 56% respectively to remain. Other divisions have also been exposed: between metropolitan areas and small towns for example, and different age groups and social classes. All of these divisions plunged the UK into its worst political and constitutional crisis since the Second World War, not helped by what is now viewed as incompetence and impotence by former Prime Minister Theresa May. The Brexit date was repeatedly delayed amid deadlock in the British parliament which was viewed by the British public as being mainly pro-remain and determined to frustrate the result of the legitimate vote. Enter Boris Johnson just days before Christmas 2019, riding in on a proverbial white charger, promising to ‘Get Brexit done!’ He won his high-speed election by a massive majority and hopes were high for a quick exit after three and a half years of prevarication and uncertainty.
But then along came another hiccup, totally unpredictable and completely out of Boris’s control – the small bump in the road called Covid 19. Britain, and indeed much of Europe, ground to a halt, both literally and figuratively. Citizens were confined to their homes, business forced to close and governments were operating with skeleton staffs and by remote control. Brexit was once again forcibly put on hold as Britain grappled with a national crisis on a scale not known since the last war. Boris himself was struck down and it was touch and go if he would pull through. But the blonde bombshell proved to be made of tough stuff; he emerged victorious over his dice with death, back in the hot seat and as far as Brexit was concerned, not a moment too soon as D-Day approached, the ‘D’ being either ‘Deadline’ or ‘Delay’ – take your pick - as June 30th 2020 had been designated as the final date on which Brexit could be further delayed if deemed necessary or desirable. But a reinvigorated Boris remained resolute and stuck to his guns. There would be mo more delay or extension to the transition period – Britain, already technically out of the EU’s control, will formally and forever leave the bloc at the end of the year.
Both sides are still playing hardball here. There is no doubt that the EU will lose face when Britain leaves lock , stock and smoking barrel and the bloc leaders are also nervous that others, buoyed by British success, might also choose to jump ship. Britain for its part is anxious to placate a public angry over the 4-year delay in leaving as well as securing a deal which benefits the country more than the bloc.
The options on the table are thus:
The EU’s Canada trade deal took ten years to negotiate and removed most, but not all, tariffs on goods traded between the EU and Canada and increased quotas. However, it does little for the trade in services, particularly financial services, which is vital for the UK economy. For this reason, those who favour this option l refer to a ‘Canada-Plus’ deal
Boris Johnson has also mentioned having an arrangement with the EU similar to that of Australia, though the EU doesn’t actually have a free trade deal with Australia. They are in negotiations for one, but currently operate mainly on World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules - i.e. it would simply equate to No Deal.
The World Trade Organisation is the place where countries negotiate the rules of international trade - there are 164 members and, if they don't have free trade agreements with each other, they trade under ‘WTO rules’. Each WTO member has a list of tariffs and quotas that they apply to other countries.
All of these are far from the cosy arrangement envisaged and drawn up by Mrs. May’s team which was an unhappy compromise between remain or leave, a sort of half-in, half-out status, rather like a marriage where both parties agree to stay together for the sake of the children – in this instance the dissatisfied remain voters. On the opposite end of the scale are the hard-core anti EU voters for whom nothing less than a No Deal divorce would be acceptable.
Talk from both sides is still tough and time is tight. Then end of the world may not be nigh but the end of the world as British citizens have known it certainly is. A settlement must be agreed in good time before the New Year’s Eve deadline in order to put in place the necessary regulations and systems Right now the smart money’s on No Deal but all options are still technically possible.
Let’s hope the divorce isn’t too acrimonious, for Auld Lang’s Syne and here’s to a Happy New Year!