Comment

Why the Brexit issue won't just fade away

Richard Corbett / Feb 2021

Photo: Shutterstock

 

Some British politicians seem to think the country can now "move on" from Brexit, hoping it won't be an issue anymore. They are wrong, for three reasons.

1. The December deal is incomplete

The Trade and Cooperation Agreement signed with the EU on Christmas Eve has several gaps, postpones the solving of a number of key issues until later, and provides for others to be revisited. Many of them are likely to create political storms.

Take, for instance, the 80% of the UK economy that is services. Almost nothing is settled for them. In the next months, the unresolved issue of access for British financial services to the EU market will come to a head.  At stake are thousands of jobs and billions of pounds, including substantial tax revenue for the exchequer.  Data adequacy is still an open issue, due to be addressed within 6 months. The agreement leaves it to the EU to unilaterally decide whether the data of its citizens can continue to be stored and processed on UK-based servers.  This is of vital importance to countless UK firms.

Other examples in include whether the UK links its own emissions trading scheme to the EU’s (part of implementing the Paris climate change agreement), how the MHRA will work with the European Medicines Agency (important for the hot issue of medical supplies), conformity assessments (whether UK-based testing labs can continue to certify that UK produced products meet EU requirements), the frequency of border inspections on food products, mutual recognition of professional qualifications (crucial for the temporary movement of services suppliers), how much extra the UK will contribute to the EU budget (given that it wants to continue to participate in the EU's research programmes), and a wide variety of other issues.

As to the government's defence that all these problems are "teething problems", expect the opposite. Some problems have been deferred.  Britain has postponed carrying out import checks for 6 months (in defiance of WTO rules), so all the issues of lorry queues and delays will resurface in the other direction - especially as the UK has not recruited and trained enough customs agents yet. Similarly, the first half of 2021 will see the expiry of many of the derogations and waivers currently in place to facilitate trade between GB and Northern Ireland.

The Agreement contains no cooperation mechanisms on foreign policy and defence, despite a commitment to do so having been included in the Political Declaration appended to the Withdrawal Agreement that both Parliaments approved in 2019.  Johnson simply reneged on this commitment. This means that there is no framework for coordination on, for instance, sanctions against third countries or responding to events in the middle east.  Events will trigger pressure for this to be revisited.

Then, there are issues surrounding the governance of the agreement. The TCA requires the setting up of a host of new bodies. The most important is the  Partnership Council, co-chaired by a UK Minister and a European Commissioner, which will run the show and even has the power to supplement or amend the agreement - without parliamentary approval! It will face a stream of issues: under it will be no fewer than 19 specialised committees (covering issues such as energy,  environment, data, trade, competition, subsidies, etc) which can suggest changes, or exercise powers delegated by the Council. All this is supposed to be monitored by a Parliamentary Partnership Assembly, composed of MPs/Lords and MEPs - but how this will work remains to be settled, including who will sit on it for the UK (will they be elected by parliament, or appointed by the government?). Ditto for the proposed "Civil Society Forum" where there are fears it will be packed with Tory donors: the TUC is already gearing up to ensure that trade unions are represented to give voice to those whose jobs will depend on the decisions these bodies will take.

The Agreement contains numerous review clauses and dispute settlement processes that could lead to parts of the deal being suspended. If Britain diverges from EU standards on the environment, workers' rights, consumer protection or unfair subsidies for firms, then these mechanisms will be triggered and could result in the re-imposition of tariffs.  Regular disputes are likely. Not just with the EU, but domestically: leaks already triggered a row about the possible watering down of the working time directive. There will be a stream of political controversies of this kind.

And, last but not least, the deal as a whole is up for review in 5 years time - not long after the next election.

2. Brexit harms many sectors

From fish and farming exporters to touring musicians and artists, from supermarkets supplying Northern Ireland to lorry drivers in queues in Kent, from Brits who retired abroad to European spouses of Brits in Britain, those facing what the government calls "teething" problems of Brexit will find out that these are, in fact, here to stay.  Livelihoods are being lost, tax revenue is taking a hit and a host of smaller practical problems (from the ending of pet passports to the reintroduction of roaming charges) will cause numerous irritations.

The free trade of goods provisions apply only to goods that are actually British - not those imported to re-export.  This requires onerous and bureaucratic rules of origin checks, pursuant to WTO rules. This is a huge cost in red tape for small firms. It also signals the death of UK trading hubs that used to be the distribution centre for the whole of Europe.

The new VAT rules, where the UK now requires continental suppliers to pay in advance just to register with the Treasury, has prompted some smaller EU businesses to choose not to bother with the UK market, leading to shortages, not just of the odd supermarket item, but of key spare parts for machine tools and vehicles. There is a clamour to simplify.

The reduced access for UK police and its Border Force to the police databases on criminal records, abducted children and terrorist suspects will inevitably lead to cases where criminals enter Britain (or get away) when they would not have previously.  Far from taking control of our borders, we have weakened it. And we will no longer be able to use the European Arrest Warrant. At some point, public opinion will be rightly enraged when a particularly horrific example arises.

The government's gratuitous vandalism in refusing to continue to be part of the Erasmus student exchange scheme is already seeing student and university led campaigns to rejoin it (several other non-EU countries participate).

And then there are those territories that the government has shafted in the process. Take the Falklands for example.  Their economy depends in no small part on selling fish to the EU, mostly Spain. The government - the Tory heirs to Thatcher - made no arrangement to enable them to continue to have tariff free access to the EU market. 

3. Voters will not let it rest

Those affected by all of the above are unlikely to keep quiet.  They will demand repair work on the agreement or rectifying measures. Some of that is possible without rejoining the EU. 

They will be joining with the significant body of public opinion that anyway continues to feel very strongly about Brexit.  Organisations such as the European Movement are seeing a surge in membership. They believe that Brexit was a national error, and that the very least we should do is repair some of the damage.

Opinion polls show a clear majority saying that Brexit was a mistake. If this becomes the received public wisdom, it would not be the first time that the public turns decisively against something that it had initially (albeit narrowly) supported: Munich, Suez and Irak for example. The fact that Brexit reality bears no resemblance to what was promised is likely to accentuate this trend.

And if that trend continues, voices demanding a closer relationship with the EU, and perhaps even those arguing to rejoin, will resonate more strongly. That in turn will put pressure on opposition parties and on the remaining Conservative moderates. So will the debate in Scotland, where being dragged out of the EU against its will is a key argument of those arguing for independence.

For Labour in particular, any failure to take up these issues would be a strategic blunder. As the consequences of Brexit visibly impact people's lives, there will be plenty of attack lines available for Labour on Conservative incompetence, malevolence and broken promises. Keeping quiet about Brexit would severely disappoint a large number of Labour's own members (within Labour too, membership of pro-European groups such as the Labour Movement for Europe is soaring.)

At the next general election, the bulk of the electorate will probably not be voting in function of their views on Brexit, but the numbers of those who do will still be significant.  That will include a proportion of 2019 Conservative voters and businesses who were not prepared to vote for Jeremy Corbyn, but might support Keir Starmer, provided he is seen to be addressing the problems they and the country face.

Whichever way you look at it, the Brexit debate within Britain is far from over.

Richard Corbett

Richard Corbett

February 2021

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