LONDON – Brexit can often seem like a mess in endless business time, deadlines, difficult times and midnight negotiations. If the UK voted to leave the European Union in June 2016, why are we still talking about it now, 1,645 days later?
The good news is that if you’re tired of hearing about Brexit, Thursday may have brought you a moment of final clarity that can help put the issue aside – for a while at least. The UK and the EU have finally reached a trade agreement that will replace the partnership they have shared for 47 years.
“For the past four years, Brexit has consumed us,” said David Henig, UK director of the European Center for International Political Economy, a think tank. “The biggest thing resulting from this agreement is that it draws a line in four and a half years of debate – it takes Brexit off the front pages and brings the business relationship business back to boring officialism.”
Here is a little of what we know about the agreement and a reminder of how Britain and the EU got to this place.
What’s in the agreement?
Politicians will dispute the details, debating which side gave the most and which won in the negotiations. The complete agreement is said to be about 2,000 pages long.
What we know so far is that Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, have emerged with what is known as a “tough” Brexit. He runs away from most shared rules and regulations, but keeps free trade circulating among them, as well as some cooperation in areas such as security, financial markets, aviation and science.
Defended by Johnson, the deal was welcomed by the EU with melancholy relief – especially considering the alternative. If they failed to reach an agreement by December 31, the UK would have broken up with a “no deal” Brexit. Experts see this as a nightmare scenario, threatening chaos at the borders, rising prices, food and medicine shortages and even street disturbances.
The deal is likely to get final approval from lawmakers next week, and all things considered are “a good deal for both sides,” said Henig. Even so, it will not avoid commercial friction. It is the first trade deal in history that raises more barriers – instead of less – compared to the perfect relationship with the EU before.
What was all this about?
On 23 June 2016, the British people voted for 52% against 48 who no longer wanted to be part of the EU. But the referendum said little about what they wanted.
The EU is the largest political and economic club in the world, united by decades of shared laws and values and a desire to never repeat the continental horror of World War II.
Britain has always been an uncomfortable member, its right-wing newspapers protesting what they regarded as unnecessary regulations dictated by Brussels that eroded their country’s sovereignty.
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When working as a journalist for the Daily Telegraph in the 1980s and 90s, Johnson perfected a type of story that mocked “Eurocrats” for imposing unnecessary rules on what folding bananas should look like – stories that were often more fun than factual accurate.
For decades, this Euroscepticism dominated the Conservative Party, playing a role in the fall of Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major in the 1990s. When his successor David Cameron tried to draw a line under his party’s internal struggles, summoning what he assumed it would be a Brexit referendum for easy victory in 2016, he also resigned after the shocking result.
For supporters, Brexit was the only way to “regain control” – to borrow its campaign slogan – from its laws, money and borders, the latter usually a euphemism for stricter immigration controls.
Turbulence just beginning
Some moderates preferred a “smooth Brexit” that mirrored Norway’s relationship with the EU. Norway is not a member of the EU, but remains in its “single market”, allowing people, goods, money and services to move freely between countries with almost no checks.
Radical Brexiteers said this was unscrupulous, preferring a “tough” Brexit that would make their country dismiss most, if not all, of the rules and regulations shared with Europe. In the meantime, some remnants have tried to bring the result down completely.
The destructive political war between these factions took a huge toll.
He turned political parties, families and friends against each other; broke the century-old parliamentary norms; he saw conservatives oust his own prime minister, Theresa May; and led Johnson to illegally suspend Parliament to prevent lawmakers from reviewing his Brexit plans, according to an impressive decision last year by the British Supreme Court.
The United Kingdom officially left the EU on 31 January this year. And since then, it has been in a “transition period”, maintaining most EU rules while the sides negotiate a trade agreement – with a deadline of December 31.
The white smoke came this week with days to spare. After a year in which the Johnson government was widely criticized for its response to the coronavirus, overseeing one of the biggest per capita deaths in the world, the prime minister has kept his promise to “end Brexit”.
Any form of Brexit will weaken the UK economy compared to staying in the EU, according to the British government’s own fiscal body, the Office for Budget Responsibility. The OBR says the Johnson agreement will reduce long-term GDP by 4%, meaning that Brexit – an entirely voluntary exercise – is expected to do more economic damage to Britain than Covid-19.
Great tension in the union
A peculiarity of the deal means that Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, will be able to negotiate more easily with the Republic of Ireland than with the rest of mainland Britain. This is at a time when some research suggests growing support for a referendum on Irish reunification.
In Scotland, most people voted against Brexit, but were overwhelmed by the weight of pro-Brexit votes in England. Now, research suggests that support for Scottish independence has never been greater.
In the short term, there will be headaches. Just seven days before the rules change, the Christmas Eve business leaves companies dangerously short to adjust to the fine print.
“An agreement on Christmas Eve means that there is very little time for the public, businesses and parliamentarians to understand the content,” wrote Maddy Thimont Jack, associate director of the Government’s research institute, in a briefing. “Companies are not ready – even with this deal now settled.”
In the long run, while it will not make up for the economic damage likely to be caused by Brexit, a new trade deal with the United States is seen as a big prize for Brexiteers.
This will help answer the next unknown question. In a world where Beijing, Washington and Brussels are fighting for hegemonic control, what will this new version of Britain look like and what will its global role be?