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Brexit: Deal or No Deal?

By Charlotte Paule, MSc Politics of Asia

23 June 2016 saw Britain vote to leave the European Union. More than four years later, the Brexit fiasco still seems far from over. While the withdrawal agreement was signed and enforced on 31 January 2020, effectively ending the UK’s membership to the EU, it also included an 11-month ‘transition period’. The aim was to give enough time for both parties to negotiate new deals on areas such as trade, competition, and security cooperation. The transition period is set to end on 31 December 2020, and a deal has yet to be signed.

In September, Prime Minister (PM) Boris Johnson remarked that if by 15 October no agreement had been reached at the EU Summit meeting, the UK would step away from negotiations and accept the fate of a no-deal departure. No deal was signed, but Johnson did not make good on his word aforementioned and negotiations continued. Negotiations later faced more gridlock following an EU negotiator testing positive for Covid-19 on 19 November – forcing EU chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, to go into self-isolation. As a result, the negotiation process has now moved online, with less than six weeks to go before the end of the transitional period.

It is, however, reported that EU ambassadors were told a trade and security agreement was close to being finalised, and that contentious issues were slowly being resolved. Namely issues surround the level-playing field provisions on state aid, environmental and labour standards, and access for EU fleets to UK fishing waters. While these issues remain unsettled, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen stated that recently there has been progress on these important matters.

Time is, however, running out. Both the European Parliament and every member state need to review and ratify the Brexit document. This could lead to an accidental no-deal if the agreement can not be approved by all before 31 December due to lengthy bureaucratic procedures.

In preparation for such an outcome, officials in France, Belgium, and The Netherlands have called on the European Commission to step up its contingent plan in case of a no deal, as the three will be most affected by the UK’s departure. 

Divisions on Brexit are also to be found in London, as aides to the PM and staunch pro-Brexiteers, Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain, recently resigned, in part over the direction of the country’s departure.

The Coronavirus pandemic may also put into question the PM’s willingness to accept a no deal departure. No deal would arguably be a lot harder to sell to the population in the current state of crisis than it was in 2019, especially given that many jobs in Northern England and the Midlands would be threatened as a result. As explained by the Financial Times, this time round, the argument of reclaiming Britain’s sovereignty ‘might not be enough’.

Analysts cite the best case scenario as being: come 1 January 2021, Britain and the EU’s relationship will revert back to how it was in 1993. Under John Major’s premiership, the Maastricht treaty came into effect, establishing the EU. Britain was not committed to the monetary union, but had a free trade agreement with the bloc. 

In the worst case, the relationship would fall subject to the World Trade Organisation’s rules, with each side putting tariffs on key sectors of the economy. This would be incredibly damaging to the UK as it would then lose open access to one of its largest export markets and source of imports. 

‘However, the threat of an accidental no deal is still very much present, as only six weeks remain before the end of the transition period and the EU Parliament, EU member states, and the UK will need to examine and ratify this deal. ‘

As of 22 November, officials in the EU and the UK reassured the public that a deal was close to being signed. However, the threat of an accidental no deal is still very much present as the end of the transition period draws to a close. The EU Parliament, EU member states, and the UK will need to examine and ratify this deal. 

With reportedly too little time to translate the document to all 24 EU languages, this race against the clock is made even more complicated by the pandemic and the move online of negotiation talks. As the worst economic crisis in modern history is already unfolding, we can only hope it will not be made worse by a no deal Brexit.

Photo Caption: Labour MEP Richard Corbett on 29th January 2020 as the European Parliament debated and voted on the withdrawal agreement, formally ending the UK’s membership to the EU (Credit European Union).

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