Simon Usherwood / Oct 2021
This is a good moment to reflect on one of the many paradoxes of Brexit: for something that has occurred under so much time pressure, there has always still been a summer break.
That was true in 2017 and 2018 during the Article 50 negotiations and even last year, when Covid and a British government unwilling to add to the transition period might have been cause to break the pause.
So this summer’s hiatus – whether paddleboarding in Cyprus or not – has not been much of a shock, especially with the conclusion of active negotiations on the basic treaties of the EU-UK relationship.
But this is to miss the bigger picture, namely the continuing instability of that relationship.
Brexit was always going to be a long-term process, for a number of reasons. Most importantly, the depth of the entwining of British political, economic and social structures with those of the EU and its member states over the previous half-century was not something that could be unpicked in anything less than a generation.
The depth of that entanglement was long a bugbear of the eurosceptic movement in the UK, particularly those who wanted nothing more than a ‘common market’, but it is only now that the full extent of it has become apparent to most people.
That some of that was actually generally well-thought-of – such as the enrichment of the typical British supermarket shelf with European produce, or no-cost roaming for mobile phones – is neither here nor there, even if it does explain some of the cries of ‘that’s not the Brexit I voted for’.
However, disentanglement is one thing. Much more problematic is the question of what comes in its place.
As has always been the case in post-WWII British European policy, the purpose of the relationship with the rest of the continent has been less than settled. The historic model of a balance of power seemed less than relevant in the wake of the end of the Cold War, even as the tropes of the ‘special relationship’ and ‘global Britain’ have pulled successive generations of politicians towards visions of a much grander role. Europe, and by extension the EU, has been a problem to be managed, rather than an opportunity to be grasped.
Brexit has simply put this issue in a much more prominent position. Yes, the UK wants to move apart from the EU, but without deciding on why it wants to do, or how.
As much as the twin treaties of the Withdrawal Agreement and the Trade & Cooperation Agreement have set up some parameters, it is striking how much they leave to be decided down the line.
The former’s Irish Protocol remains in a very uncertain place in a period of fluid Northern Irish politics, while the latter’s framework for future cooperation is more hung up on the ever-lengthening transitional and grace periods being applied. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the TCA is more about potential than reality.
Crucially, neither treaty is unambiguously accepted as the definitive basis for relations. This goes beyond the continual (and unjustified) rhetoric of the British government about signing under a degree of duress, to the multiple active elements of the TCA that both sides agreed could be pushed down the line.
This is partly a function of the hurried nature of the negotiations, but more fundamentally it is a result of the negative-sum nature of the withdrawal: no model of leaving the EU would fail to generate costs, so the process has been one of allocation. The only real questions have been how honest everyone would be about those costs and how publics would react when they found out.
Sadly, the answers are respectively “not particularly” and “not very happy at all”. Rhetoric is one thing; empty shelves are another.
All of which suggests that rather than representing the new baseline for EU-UK relations, the current situation is more likely to be a staging post towards further deterioration.
This autumn will see a number of tests of this. While the introduction of UK customs controls has been pushed back once more, the Irish Protocol issues are set to kick back in, along with potential legal challenges by the EU. The cross-cutting impact of Covid on labour and goods supply will also increase pressure.
Even where there are solid reasons to renegotiate parts of the treaties, this is now bound up in the bigger problem of neither side wanting to reopen that they do have in legal terms, both for fear of what else might get reworked and from a strong desire not to repeat the psychodramas of 2016-20.
What is unclear right now is what it will take to stop things worsening even further. Perhaps some joint sense of mission through COP26 this winter, perhaps a new government in London, but the message right now is that this is going to get worse before it gets better.