The decision to use brexite was made some time ago. But important questions have still not been clarified. Added to this are the consequences of the corona crisis. Prime Minister Johnson is pressing for progress in the negotiations with the EU.
Great Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson had certainly imagined the brexite transition year 2020 differently: without the corona virus and the dramatic economic and social consequences for his country.
For the mood was at its best on January 31 at 11:00 p.m. local time in the camp of the exit supporters around the symbolic Parliament Square, when the United Kingdom technically ceased to be part of the European Union. Nevertheless, all EU rules and directives will continue to apply on British soil until December 31st just as before – it has always been a divorce in instalments.
Interestingly, it seems that Johnson’s government could well cope with the economic impact of going it alone; fearing a slowdown in growth at first, it believes it will quickly be back in the black with the help of free trade agreements hastily concluded around the world.
The situation is quite different with Covid-19: Cautious estimates assume a contraction of at least 10 percent of GDP. If one looks at the statements of the events industry, including congress tourism, catering and tourism in general, and takes them seriously (e.g. the lobby group ‘Visit England’), this figure is probably even doubled: since this sector alone accounts for one-tenth of the national economy and is, literally speaking, almost completely under water due to the ‘lockdown’ phenomenon. And: Will all visitors who came in 2019 return immediately in 2021? It’s no more than a guess when you look at it from today’s perspective. Especially if the pandemic should keep us busy until the summer of next year.
And that’s when Johnson announces that this Thursday is the final decision day: either or. So what exactly is this week about? Haven’t we already had countless delays and postponements regarding an orderly exit? So why should we fixate on a particular day now?
Sabre rattling – clever tactics or last exit?
Does Johnson know that, in principle, Brussels has the longer (negotiating) lever? So a lot of political wind for nothing perhaps? Or does he assume that London will gain the upper hand and can demand special regulations, as it has always done, even on the subject of brexite? Or is sheer desperation reigning according to the motto: no deal is better than one dictated by the EU?
But we were exactly at that point when the British Parliament finally agreed to the withdrawal agreement, thus clearing the way for the technical withdrawal on January 31st.
Apparently a lot of things have changed since then. In order: Until the current ninth round of negotiations, there had hardly been any common ground. A majority of non-existent points of intersection were brought forward. Firstly, it is about the method of how state aid should be administered in the future, still according to EU guidelines or through the British way. Secondly, should disputes arise over a free trade agreement without any duties and quotas – who, how and where will have the authority to monitor the agreement? Third, how exactly should this free trade agreement look like? Countless sector-specific regulations have to be put on the table. Fourthly, there is disagreement on the issues concerning social and environmental policy.
Big issues – but also many open questions on both sides of the English Channel. And to make the problem even more complicated, three more issues have now emerged as sticking points.
Fisheries, food safety, Northern Ireland
Let’s start with the last point. Even within its own ranks highly controversial, a majority in Johnson’s conservative party recently passed a new, quasi-autonomous brexite law. This allows London to shape the internal market between the mainland and Northern Ireland itself – without having to listen to Brussels. London stresses that it wants to guarantee the unity of the British internal market. Brussels has now given Johnson a period of four weeks to comment and has asked him to honour the original exit agreement, which is valid under international law. According to the EU, this is the only way to prevent a new permanent border from dividing Ireland and possibly causing unrest. More than anything else, this question had kept both sides in suspense for a long time.
On food safety: This Monday, many citizens and farmers demonstrated in front of Parliament to ensure that if the proposed free trade agreement with the United States is in place, chlorinated chicken and other ingredients that are hazardous to health should not be imported. The House of Commons has now decided that daily practice, where high standards apply, does not need its own new law. Opponents argue that a free trade agreement could thus trick the current non-binding British standards. Actually an internal British post-brexite problem. But far from it: Brussels is worried that impure products could enter the EU via detours, for example via Northern Ireland.
And now to the subject of fishing, which could overturn the entire brexite negotiations at the last minute. Briefly explained: “EU registered fishermen from the Netherlands, France or other member states are currently allowed to fish freely in British waters – because you live in a single market that includes the waters of both parties. There are far more fish in British fishing grounds. Conversely, British fishermen mostly sell their products to other EU countries. After 31.12. all this has to be completely renegotiated or has been negotiated until then.
London has now tried to propose a kind of “royal road”: once a year, the fishing quotas are to be redefined analogous to an agreement with Norway. In return, the EU should continue to guarantee British fishermen and their traders free access to the internal market.
But still “No Deal” as a result?
So this week all the cards will be on the negotiating table. Is there a compromise on fishing? Can state aid and how it is granted be coordinated? Will Johnson withdraw the controversial second brexite law? So is there a comprehensive trade agreement between the EU and Great Britain after all – or rather not?
However, one thing seems certain from today’s perspective: that nobody would have left the above-mentioned negotiating table forever this Thursday. The last days of October should be used to find a way out of this situation, so that the issue can finally be put aside in November.
And it could even happen that only some of the most important sectors are ticked off in partial trade agreements and all brexite detail work is then shifted to June. This way both sides would save face and prevent “hard brexite”. One can be curious.
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