Post-Brexit Britain and the European Union: What’s the New Normal like?

Despite several reservations about the pact’s implementation, European lawmakers finally approved the post-Brexit trade deal between the European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom (UK) on April 27, 2021. An overwhelming majority voted to ratify the Trade and Cooperation Agreement that had been in force provisionally since January 2021, thereby ensuring the continuation of tariff-free and quota-free trade between the two.

The agreement is quite remarkably the most comprehensive the EU has ever signed with a third nation. It is also for the first time a deal -that would have otherwise taken several years- has been ratified in such a short time. While the Brexiteers may have got most of what they so desperately sought, the deal nevertheless comes along with many challenges.

On the crucial question of ensuring a ‘level playing field’ for businesses, both sides have agreed on a complex set of standards and rules that most certainly are bound to be contested in the future. These provisions establish a dispute settlement mechanism for resolving any dispute that may arise out of the agreement. In case of non-compliance with the deal, to borrow a phrase from European commission president Ursula von der Leyen, the EU will “not hesitate” to use the agreement’s “real teeth“, which could then lead to tariffs.

New issues have surfaced due to the trade arrangements that have created more political tensions between the EU and the UK. Goods trade is tariff-free, but the process will still take longer due to increased border checks and cumbersome paperwork. Fishing stocks, in particular, have been affected as exports to the EU were delayed due to new rules and regulations.

Notably, the new trade deal does not set out significant detail about financial services – on which the UK economy is heavily reliant. The UK has lost the advantage of EU membership which had previously enabled the financial sector to provide easy and hassle-free services to clients across Europe. Not only finance, but even legal, auditing, architecture, consulting, and other services face uncertainty about their future dealings with the EU.

In Northern Ireland, post-Brexit tensions still persist around the border. The Protocol, which permits Northern Ireland to continue to remain a part of the EU’s single market, has so far failed to provide a viable solution to the unique predicament of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The UK’s unilateral decision to ease some of the new checks in the Irish Sea border between Britain and Northern Ireland led the EU to take legal action against the UK for what the commission refers to as a breach of the agreement. Clearly, both sides need to put in a lot of effort to build a solid and close relationship based on mutual trust and understanding.

As gathered from the latest unrest in Northern Ireland, Brexit has had a profound impact on devolution in the UK, once again drawing public attention towards the political and cultural divide present in the region. The controversial Irish Sea Border, which was supposed to provide the best possible solution to maintain peace in Northern Ireland, has instead evoked anger and resentment among pro-British unionists in the province, increasing fears that the sea border has reinvigorated “the Irish question“.

Likewise, in Scotland – which voted to remain in the EU- calls for Scottish independence have been put back on the agenda. The winning of the Scottish Nationalist Party for the fourth consecutive time has raised the prospect of another Scottish referendum. There might be a chance of Scotland becoming an independent nation, one that gets granted a free pass if it were to apply for EU membership, undermining the political integrity of the UK.

A significant breakthrough in post-Brexit talks occurred on the subject of fishing rights. Even though fishing is a minor contributor to the UK economy, it has enormous political and symbolic significance. The negotiated settlement between the two sides on the management and sharing aspects of fish stocks for a transitional period does not meet the demands of both the Brexiteers and the fishing communities in the UK, for whom exclusive access to fisheries often meant reclaiming jurisdiction over the UK’s coastline. It is debatable and uncertain whether annual renegotiations on future access after 2026 would help to quell the fishing industry’s discontent. The recent Jersey island fishing standoff with France and the failure to secure a fishing deal with Norway indicate that there will be further flare-ups over fishing rights down the line.

Is Brexit finally done?

While the withdrawal agreement and the trade deal intended to provide a framework for the EU-UK future partnership, many critical issues remain vague and unresolved. Given the slew of disputes over the UK’s implementation of the deal and the bitter row over AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine supply, it looks like the Brexit process is far from over.

The agreement has sparked bitter divisions in the UK and cast doubt on the prospect of stability on the island of Ireland. A lot can happen in Scotland in a few years with the growing call for independence, leading to some serious ramifications for the future of the United Kingdom. Likewise, for the EU, the “UK model” of relationship has set a precedent for other member states, raising concerns about more calls for secession from the bloc. Yet, considering the political and economic fallout from Brexit in the UK, for now, it seems unlikely that any other member would follow suit.

Immigration, one of the key drivers of the Brexit movement, has suffered a severe setback. Millions of EU nationals living in the UK and British citizens living in the EU face an uncertain future as they strive to secure their legal status to reside where they have lived for years.

All in all, given the complexities challenging this new partnership, the post-Brexit era appears to be an endless series of escalating conflicts. Breaking free from decades of trade links and regulatory harmonisation was surely not going to be an easy task. Nevertheless, the EU and the UK still share the same values and global challenges such as – climate change, supporting multilateral international order, combatting terrorism, promoting liberal and democratic societies. Bearing this in mind, the pragmatic way forward would be that both sides work together to build cooperation in such areas of mutual economic and political interests that would ensure the security and stability of the region.

Gatha Nautiyal, PhD
Gatha Nautiyal, PhD
The author is a researcher based in Bengaluru, India. She holds a PhD in European Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her primary areas of interest include European affairs, Migration issues and the Asia-Pacific region.