Britain has finally reclaimed its ‘sovereignty’ and regained control of its ‘destiny’ – the much-touted objective of Brexit – ending decades of a love-hate affiliation with the European Union and with it the stinging uncertainty that had hovered over Britons since the 2016 referendum.
The long-sought UK-EU trade deal, just a week before the end of the transition period on Dec 31, at last calmed nerves and offered the Tory government breathing space to focus on an unrelenting pandemic.
Brexit, however, has not come cheap for the Conservatives, as two prime ministers, David Cameron and Theresa May, and several MPs on both sides of the political divide quit midway or were led out as the party moved ahead with delivering on its in/out referendum pledge outcome, a manifesto promise made by Cameron – himself a Remainer – ahead of the 2015 general election.
It has also not come cheap for the United Kingdom: Brexit is fuelling a sort of nationalist sentiment in Scotland, a nation which was against the UK’s departure from the EU. While the architects of Brexit were patting themselves on the back in London, Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish First Minister in so many words said that because the nation did not vote for Brexit, it now has the “right to choose its future as an independent country and once more regain the benefits of EU membership”. The Tory government would have to promptly arrest any undesirable economic implications of Brexit, especially when it comes to Scotland and Northern Ireland, otherwise it would provide political fodder to pro-EU parties and the opposition at large.
The historic 668-billion-pound a year trade agreement, allowing tariff- and quota-free trade in goods from January 1, 2021, has dissipated the clouds of ambiguity and the disruption which a no-deal scenario was threatening to ignite in the form of price hikes, stringent customs controls and tariffs under WTO rules.
That being said, the relationship will not be the same anymore as new sets of rules will come into force. Unhindered travel will now end, and British nationals will now be restricted to staying in the EU for three months in any 180-day period without visas and the same rules apply to EU citizens travelling to the UK.
Fishing rights, one of the main sticking points aside of the level-playing field in terms of labour and environmental standards and state subsidies, continue to be the focus of heated debate, as the UK’s fishing industry feels let down after Prime Minister Boris Johnson, according to them, conceded ground and sacrificed fishing to secure wider objectives. The Scottish government has also claimed a projected fall in the quantity of key fishing stocks landed by the Scottish fleet.
The UK has agreed to a five-and-a-half-year transition period to increase its fishing quotas from the current half to two-thirds. Following the end of transition in 2026, the EU and the UK will hold annual talks to decide on fishing quotas. In case the UK halts EU access to UK waters, the 27-nation bloc could opt for tariffs on fish exports. Interestingly, fishing has a tiny share in Britain’s economy, but enjoys political weight and offers jobs to the coastal population.
The real losers are likely to be French fishermen who rely on British waters for their catch, and after the cut in fishing quotas, they will also have to compete with other EU vessels in their shrinking space. Related fishing industries in coastal EU countries might also feel the negative impact of the changes.
The fallout of immigration from European countries, especially low-skilled labour, and the European Court of Justice’s (ECJ) jurisdiction on the British justice system emboldened calls for the UK to distance itself from the bloc. The UK is now going to introduce a new points-based immigration system from January 1, discouraging low-skilled labour from abroad. But the move is set to bite into the wallets of British employers who relied on cheap labour from the EU. Domestic workers, farming, patient care and the hospitality sectors are set to see some disruptions.
On the legal front, Britain will now be free to decide on vital questions of law and justice, with no more challenges from the ECJ. However, EU judges’ orders are said to be still enforceable in Britain, in connection with EU programmes. Moreover, the special status of Northern Ireland agreed in the Brexit withdrawal agreement could possibly invoke some role for the ECJ.
On the demand for a level-playing field in trade – a vital feature of the EU single market – the deal is said to have mandatory enforcement and dispute settlement mechanisms to protect the rights of businesses and individuals, even though the UK claims to have secured relaxations in this regard. The future of the agreement now hinges on the level of commitment and cooperation between the two sides.
The British government has expressed its resolve to maintain the agreed upon high standards. However, a think tank, IPPR, believes the deal leaves workers’ rights and environmental protections at risk of erosion, as the new process agreed for protecting a level-playing field sets such a high bar for proof that it would be rarely enforced.
The last-minute pact spared the Johnson government from legislators’ ruthless scrutiny that was seen even from treasury benches in the earlier Brexit-related legislations, as the eleventh-hour arrangement left little choice for the main opposition Labour Party to scuttle the “thin” and “flawed” deal. It comfortably sailed through the Commons, despite opposition from smaller parties such as the Scottish National Party. The EU ambassadors have already given a go-ahead for the deal provisionally, but it must still be approved retrospectively by the European Parliament in the months ahead.
While the Johnson government has on many occasions spoken of its preparedness for a no-deal outcome, it remains to be seen how it provisionally implements it in such a short timeframe now that an agreement has been reached.
The wide-ranging pact also encompasses a certain level of cooperation in the fields of security, health, energy and other areas of life. But the UK will surely miss the unfettered access to some EU databases. It is to be seen how the Brexit trade deal plays out for the UK job market at a time when coronavirus-spurred redundancies pose a challenge to the country. Several financial institutions have already moved some of their staff to other European cities. But the mass exodus that was feared has not yet come to pass. There is said to be little to cherish in the trade-in-goods focused deal for the services sector – a major pillar of the UK economy. Now service providers will have to grapple with separate rules of states.
The shift in the level of decades of close alliance could, no doubt, cause short-term disruptions at borders and confusion in terms of new rules and regulations, but it is up to the two sides on how far they go to rebuild bridges of trust and cooperation and adapt to the new reality. Ideally, there had to be a timeframe for gradual implementation to prevent any problems that could arise out of new paperwork and other formalities. Both sides will now need to condone minor lapses to keep the trade flow friction-free in the initial days and months.
The writer is news editor on the London desk, The News.
Email: khurram.mateen@gmail. com