Article Published January 4th, 2021

This article was first published by Scottish Centre on European Relations

As the start of 2021 looms, the EU and UK have a new relationship underpinned by their new trade and cooperation agreement. This agreement fractures, damages and complicates economic, political and social links between the UK and EU. And, alongside the 2019 Withdrawal agreement, it ensures there is a customs and regulatory border between Britain and Northern Ireland – meaning the fractures are within as well as beyond the UK.

This attempted distancing of the UK from the rest of Europe, in the pursuit of some illusory, right-wing ‘global Britain’ ideology combined with continuing propaganda around regaining sovereignty, is overall bound to fail. Instead, the UK is now moving into the position of being a rather large economic and political satellite of the European Union. And while in some ways, as intended by the Brexiters, leaving the EU will certainly weaken EU-UK relations, Brexit will mainly have the result of leaving the UK with less influence, less voice, less say but still hugely dependent on and interdependent with our European neighbours.

The political and media frenzy around the possibility of deal or no deal was deliberately stoked by Boris Johnson and his entourage to encourage headlines of an ultimate UK victory in the talks (Johnson’s cowardice and self interest always making a deal look the more likely outcome). The deal/no-deal stand-off also served to take attention away from the fact that any deal was bound to put up trade and other barriers and to fracture the UK’s part in the EU’s economic and political institutions, and so to damage the UK. But now, in the face of a 1246 page deal – and much more yet to be negotiated or unilaterally decided (on data, financial services and more) – the reality is laid clearly out for all to see.

UK as a Satellite of the EU

The EU is well used to negotiating agreements with its neighbours and taking on board both its own political and economic interests and constraints and those of whichever neighbour it is bargaining with – be that Turkey (customs union), Ukraine (association agreement), Switzerland (a set of bilateral treaties), Norway/Iceland/Liechtenstein (the European Economic Area) and now the UK (trade and cooperation agreement).

But the EU-UK deal is unique in creating a major series of barriers to trade and cooperation rather than opening up opportunities. Still, as for the EU’s other neighbourhood agreements, it sets up a whole range of new governance, consultation and management bodies for the agreement under the so-called joint partnership council. Alongside these sit a detailed set of arrangements for dispute settlement, for review of the whole agreement, and the possibility, with notice, to withdraw from it in its entirety. The EU and UK are condemned to keep trading, to keep talking, to update and amend the agreement and to deal with disputes.

But the status quo of EU membership has been ruptured. The UK has chosen to give up power and influence, vote and voice. There is plenty here to keep policy experts occupied not least comparing Norway’s democratic deficit, given its limited ability to influence EU law, to the even lesser influence the UK will have on EU laws and regulations (though the UK’s diplomats would do well to talk in depth to their Norwegian counterparts about best routes to attempting to influence new EU laws). Despite the multiple new EU-UK committees set up by the new agreement, the UK’s diplomats and officials will still have much less contact and interaction with their EU counterparts than they had inside the EU – knowledge, influence, networks are all weakened by Brexit.

And the UK’s freedom, much hyped by Boris Johnson, to go in a different direction looks very constrained – both by the EU-UK agreement itself and by the reality of standards being increasingly set in competition between the world’s three main blocs: the US, EU and China. UK products sold to the EU will anyway and of course have to meet EU standards – and be certified to do so (except where there are some provisions for mutual recognition). The multiple types of non-tariff barriers removed in the creation of the EU’s single market in 1992 are now back with a vengeance for EU-UK trade. This will dampen EU-UK goods trade and hit services most dramatically and deeply of all.

The UK may attempt to engage in regulatory competition on labour or environmental standards. But the range of provisions for dealing with unfair state aids, divergence in labour, environmental and climate standards and for ‘rebalancing’ the level-playing field if it all goes wrong, should provide reassurance to those who fear the UK government may still go down the Singapore on Thames route (as should, for example, the EU moves to suspend Swiss access to its stock markets last year – the EU is not a passive partner in its agreements with its neighbours). The EU has not established these provisions in the partnership agreement simply to leave them idle. Nor, given the deep lack of trust that the EU member states and Brussels now have in the UK, and especially in the current UK government, has the EU left any option uncovered to revisit the agreement in part or in whole if it proves necessary.

The Degeneration and Undermining of British Politics and Democracy

The UK’s European question has, then, not gone away, whatever Boris Johnson may declare. Brexit itself was driven by the takeover of the Tory party by its eurosceptic fringe, supported and encouraged down the decades by the major part of the UK’s right wing media. Whether Tory divisions over the EU, and the nature of the UK, will be calmed for now by the reality of Brexit is an open question. Indeed, the Tories created a European question where there was none – where the UK was an agile and influential EU power, where the public was broadly accepting of our EU status quo.

Now, as a satellite of the EU, the UK will mainly prosper – and recover its political and democratic stability and integrity – to the extent that it rebuilds a close, strong and honest partnership with the EU. But the route to that is not straightforward. Certainly, the Johnson government will not be able to avoid the perpetual consultations and talks that the new agreement requires, including its errors or unintended frictions (alongside the many foreseen and deliberately introduced frictions). But, in the face of the costs and damage of Brexit, the Tories will surely decide they have no choice but to maintain their ideological falsehoods. They will continue to pretend that rupturing economic, social and political links is creating a vast new European free trade area or freeing Britain to establish new trade deals (that are replicas at best of prior EU trade deals). The ideology of Brexit will remain – in replacing the convenient European health insurance card with a global one (yet to be seen) or in wantonly withdrawing from the EU’s Erasmus programme or in refusing any structured foreign and security policy cooperation with the EU.

And as the new barriers and frictions to trade between Britain and Northern Ireland become ever more apparent – as grace periods run out, as the Irish government ensures access to EhiC and Erasmus for citizens of Northern Ireland – there will be more obfuscation and denial from the UK government.

Overall, then, the degradation of British politics, the pretence, the false pictures and fake news, the deluded yesteryear language of pseudo-imperialism are bound to continue under the current UK government.

Whether the UK itself will survive the real impacts of Brexit and the decay of its politics that brought us to this juncture is now one of the key political questions for the coming period. Northern Ireland is on its own new trajectory, semi-detached from the UK in ways that can only continue to intensify the Irish reunification debate. Scotland has elections in May 2021, and, since last June, there have been sustained majorities in opinion polls for independence.

The new EU-UK deal will set up challenges a-plenty for a future England-Scotland border if independence in the EU is the eventual outcome. But in the face of the myriad borders that are now being installed by the UK government – whether it be to the EU, to Northern Ireland, or even for lorry drivers to access Kent – these challenges may not dent that independence majority. Hypocrisy will continue here too as the UK government that has established such deep barriers to the EU through Brexit continues to fulminate against the possibility of a Scotland-England border.

Also very challenged, in the midst of these international, economic, political, social and constitutional questions, is the Labour party under Keir Starmer. Starmer has adopted a stance of going along with a Brexit deal – of not letting the Tories criticise Labour as remainers – a narrow and backward-looking calculation. Apart from having, for now, no separate Labour policy on what EU-UK relations should look like, Starmer risks too being aligned with Boris Johnson’s rhetoric and politics of treating Brexit as a done deal, the European question as settled.

But the European question for the UK looks like never being settled in the years to come. Labour will have to answer the question as to what closer or better relations with the EU look like – and waiting until four years time to answer that question, as the bumpy path ahead creates damage, frictions and upset, looks unrealistic. And closer relations with the EU will always run straight into the problem of becoming even more of a rule-taker, and creating more of a democratic deficit, than Johnson’s EU-satellite UK will be.

This is the challenge that the ‘soft’ Brexiters never answered (as they try, curiously, to re-fight old wars suggesting those who argued for remain and for the UK public to be able to change their minds (which polls show they had done), were somehow responsible for Brexit not the Tories themselves). For the UK to remain in the EU’s customs union and single market without any say over decisions – a rule-taker not a rule-maker – was not and is not a sustainable position. The extent of the democratic deficit that a small state like Norway faces is substantial. For one of Europe’s largest economies and states to create and sustain such a democratic deficit was never credible – let alone in the context of the UK’s divisive Brexit politics.

If Labour, then, wants to – eventually – have a European policy, to bring the UK closer to the EU, it will have to answer these questions of democratic deficit. And while Starmer’s Labour looks unlikely to come anywhere near the question of rejoining the EU, from the EU perspective, the idea of the UK rejoining the EU in the next ten years or so is anyway mostly anathema. A stable pro-European UK with a revived, strong, democracy and politics – demonstrated over several years – might in a generation be able to re-join the EU but not in the next decade. Faced with these conundrums, the lack of a Labour European policy for now is perhaps not so surprising.

The UK’s potential fragmentation will also put the UK’s European question in another form. If, in a decade’s time, Scotland is independent and/or Northern Ireland has reunified with the Republic of Ireland, there will be more European questions for England and Wales not fewer.

What the Brexiters have ensured is that a Europe question that was once only the obsession of the Tory fringes and the eurosceptic media has become an unending question for the UK, and one that may, in part, lead to the UK’s demise. Brexit has upended the UK’s European alliances, shrunk its considerable influence within the EU (and in the wider world), damaged its reputation, its economy, society and politics.

On top of all this, there is an inevitable narrowing of the focus of UK politics. While the EU moves on to consider its relations with the US and China, its Covid recovery strategy and funds, its European Green deal, its role in the world, the UK is condemned to dealing with the extraordinary range of barriers and bureaucracy that it has now introduced into its dealings both with the EU and within its own state (to Northern Ireland) and with the political fallout from the divisions Brexit has created.

The European question is dead; long live the European question.