It has been little more than one month and a half since the UK has officially left the EU, by embarking on a new relationship based on a post-Brexit trade deal. It is undeniable that the situation between these two newly divided realities still entails several unsettled issues, to the extent that David Frost, Boris Johnson’s EU adviser, has recently described the current relations as being more than bumpy. But why is that? Let’s try to delve more deeply into deal areas that have proven to be remarkably problematic.
The “Canada-style” free trade agreement reached on Christmas Eve, with Johnson mainly focusing on sovereignty rather than market access, overlooked many topical details. As expected, exiting the bloc’s single market and customs union has revealed to be very troublesome. One of the most evident unsolved questions is the confusing load of paperwork, bureaucracy and border checks now required for trade. This has resulted in considerable delays and extra costs for operations previously taken for granted by British companies and consumers. This situation has particularly had a harsh impact on small and medium enterprises, since trading in the EU now entails significant higher charges from the supply side. Over these last few weeks, several business owners have felt utterly overwhelmed by these baffling dynamics, to the extent that many have decided to temporarily halt their exports to the EU, with the idea of resuming when trading arrangements will be more transparent.
It is then widely known that one of the most sensitive issues of Brexit has always been the question of Northern Ireland and its border with the Republic of Ireland, still part of the EU. After challenging negotiations which have involved the EU and the UK for years, new rules for border checks have been finally formalised in the Northern Ireland Protocol, enforced on Jan. 1st 2021. The agreement has settled that Northern Ireland can still follow many of the EU’s rules, thus avoiding a hard border. For instance, lorries driving across the border with the Republic of Ireland are not inspected, but checks are to be carried out in ports in case these goods further travel to Great Britain. Nevertheless, many problems have already been encountered, especially with supermarkets supplies, in spite of a grace period granted for adapting to the new rules. Therefore, the EU has been called upon for greater flexibility. The Protocol has been at the centre of a very heated debate since the European Commission, when restricting exports of coronavirus vaccines to third countries, has recently mentioned the UK, including Northern Ireland. Even if this decision was quickly withdrawn since it provoked very contrasting reactions, it undoubtedly highlights a very confusing reality.
The EU, as stated by Frost, should adapt to the idea that the UK is now an independent neighbour, by adopting a different spirit. On the other hand, a widespread attitude among EU diplomats is that the negative consequences that the UK is now facing are to be solved by London, since Brexit was the country’s will. Nevertheless, such a fragmented relationship could be very detrimental for both sides, by also damaging their position in the global arena. It thus appears that these first months will be crucial to shape the EU-UK future relationship. The Christmas Eve deal was just a stepping stone of a long process fraught with hurdles.
An analysis by Camilla Castelanelli
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