Jill Rutter / Jan 2021
Photo: European Union, 2021
For over five years, the UK has been debating its future relationship or negotiating its relationship with the EU. It took from June 2017 to October 2019 to conclude the Withdrawal Agreement – with a false dawn in November 2018 when then Prime Minister Theresa May put her name to a document. Only one problem – she could never persuade Parliament to accept it.
Boris Johnson took just three months to renegotiate withdrawal – and then managed to secure a stonking majority to pass his “oven ready deal”.
Now he – and his chief negotiator David Frost – can put up the “mission accomplished” sign over Downing Street having withstood the pandemic to land their Trade and Cooperation Agreement and pass it in Parliament in a day with what, looking back on the divisions of the referendum and May years, seems a near incredible majority.
But the reality he has to confront is that the negotiating is not going to stop any time soon.
First, the UK is still waiting on some of the key unilateral decisions from the EU – there is a six month breathing space on data adequacy to allow that decision to be made – but although the UK granted EU financial services businesses equivalence weeks ago no sign of movement from the EU there. Instead it seems to want more information on the UK’s future plans. Roll on the new framework for regulatory cooperation – but that needs to be negotiated and established.
There are other structures and arrangements to be agreed – for example there is a deadline of 2022 to decide how the UK and EU energy markets will connect; there is a framework to try to agree which, if any, professional qualifications will benefit from mutual recognition – the UK’s bid for general mutual recognition having been rejected.
And of course, in five and a half years, the fisheries transition expires and access has to be negotiated annually.
There is then a complicated governance structure sitting on top of the agreement: the new joint Partnership Council supported by a specific Trade committee and then a raft of specialized committees and working groups. These are in addition to the Joint Committee and its specialized committee that oversee the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol. These structures will all need civil servants to service them. Add in the parliamentary and civil society forums and there will be a big job to ensure a steady information flow.
That all assumes everything goes swimmingly. But the agreement means the UK will have to remain conscious of both how EU rules are evolving but also conscious of what effect changes in laws in London, Edinburgh or Cardiff will have in terms of moving GB away from EU rules. Those will have an immediate effect on the operation of the Protocol in Northern Ireland where NI will stay tied to a suite of EU rules, but also raise the risk that the EU may trigger some of the mechanisms to assure the maintenance of the level playing field. That applies both to subsidies, where the UK is now obliged by international law to set up its own domestic regime but also to competition policy, environmental policy and labour standards. The big unknown at this stage is how ready the EU will be to invoke these clauses. The UK could find its ability to diverge is much more constrained than it thinks now. The government will certainly need to ensure that it always thinks through what any change means for the EU agreement and for the operation of the NI Protocol.
Of course these are not the only areas where the UK will need to look over its shoulder at the EU. We may have confined the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice to the Ni protocol and time-limited protections of citizens’ rights, but if the EU ends up granting data adequacy and financial services equivalence, UK policy makers will need to remember that these can be taken away summarily by the EU - ask the Swiss. And the more the UK trumpets its plans to do things differently to gain a march over the EU, the more likely it is that the EU will feel the need to flex its muscles.
All these suggest the UK will need to maintain a big presence in Brussels after Brexit, combined with an effective structure for domestic coordination. But the UK Mission is being reduced in size and importance as a consequence of our new relationship, and we have seen no moves to resurrect the internal Cabinet Office structures that gave the UK a reputation for being one of the best coordinated member states.
Other countries where the EU looms large invest in a big intelligence gathering and influencing operation in Brussels – the UK will need to do the same.