Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Unsettled Settlement: the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement

As I began with a short piece just two days* after David Cameron's calamitously misjudged Brexit referendum of June 23 2016, it seems fitting to glance now at the proclaimed end of the crisis: the passing into law four and a half rancorous years later of the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement. 

First, Boris Johnson has done what he said he'd do, at least as far as he and his supporters are concerned, which is what counts: he can forever boast he took the UK out of the EU; second, he and the EU managed to avoid No Deal. That comes as a relief, though as Michael Heseltine has remarked, the kind of relief with which a condemned man hears his execution has been commuted to life.

For even for the layman, without studying the small print, it is hard to see this moment as the end of the issues or Britain's woes. Apart from obvious gaps - no finality on the status of Britain's services industry or the arbitration mechanism for disputes; disappointment for the fishermen on both sides; a return to red tape and border checks, disingenuously passed over by the Tory government as 'bumps in the road' - it is plain the strained, last minute accord is neither breach nor settlement. It envisages fresh negotiations if either party diverges from its terms, a procedure likely to become permanent, similar to Switzerland's ad hoc arrangements with the EU.

Will these negotiations be an easy and cheap exercise between friends, or a fraught and costly contest of rivals, a slow poison to Britain's international relations and domestic politics as Labour leader Keir Starmer moves on from his tactical approval of the deal this week? Or will the outcome be a series of treaty revisions that restores in all but name the status quo ante Brexit?

Four and a half years ago I wrote that 'Britain is in Europe whether it likes it or not; it's called History and Geography. There is no way out of either of them.'

Who is sure this morning anything has changed?

*June 25 2016: BREXIT: WHERE TO NOW? 

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