Dr Sarah Lieberman considers the latest twists and turns in Brexit negotiations
It has not been an easy year for anyone, but for 52% of the UK population, I imagine the belief that our Prime Minister – Mr Boris Johnson – had an ‘oven-ready Brexit deal’ waiting in the wings kept toes warm in the evening. The sunlit uplands, sovereignty, the return of British fish to British waters: all this and more would be ours by the end of the grim pandemic filled year of 2020.
But we have reached the middle of December, and now we are told that a deal is not forthcoming? Negotiations have stuck on three issues: regulatory standards, fish and Northern Ireland. In short, Mr Johnson did not have an oven-ready Brexit deal, at least not one that had been agreed by the European Union.
Government and media repeatedly told the UK public that the EU would bend to our will, that Great Britain as a huge economic power, would negotiate an exit from the world’s greatest collaborative project. Indeed, there a sense emerged that the European Union is being somewhat unreasonable in its unwillingness to break its own rules and change its founding principles for an exiting member. For indeed, one would surely expect the local golf club to allow you to carry on playing its course once you ceased your membership. And should surely also allow you to play wearing non-standard golf attire if you so wish, seeing as you are no longer a member.
After Brexit, the European Union has 27 members, and it must protect the trade bloc it has established. While continued EU-UK relations are important, this cannot be at the expense of high regulatory standards. Citizens of EU states can travel (border free), safe in the knowledge that all foods and environmental standards are harmonised, and, until now, we have been able to import from all 27 other states, safe in the knowledge that all products meet our own standards. Our government now asks the European Union to allow the UK to continue to trade in those products, but without promising to maintain standards set in Brussels.
The UK would ideally trade freely with both the USA and the EU: but the two global giants have largely differing standards. Everyone has heard of the dreaded ‘chlorinated chicken’, but this is just the byword for a whole raft of non-matched regulatory standards, including genetically modified produce, and hormone and antibiotic usage in animals reared for food. Should the government lower standards to trade with the USA, the UK will no longer be able to export its agricultural produce to the European Union – something termed ‘retaliation’ by our current Prime Minister.
Fish issues are also causing a brouhaha. Despite making up only 0.02% of the UK’s GDP, the fishing industry lies central to the cultural heritage of the UK, and its self-identification as a sea faring nation. For decades, the UK has been part of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, which treats European seas as common ground and which attaches quotas to fish stocks. This policy has been unpopular in the UK since its inception, and many of the quotas allocated to the UK fishing industry were sold to private entities in other EU member states. Untangling this, requires a rethink of the ‘common water’ policy enjoyed by member states, but also requires the UK to acknowledge that its own waters are not large: positioned as it is between mainland Europe and Ireland, Great Britain cannot enjoy unfettered access to 200 miles of open water as allowed by the UN Convention for the Law of the Sea’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Moreover, fish caught in British waters are largely exported (to EU member states) and the fish we eat here in the UK are largely imported (often from EU member states). Moreover (again), fish processing is a job undertaken by migrant workers in the UK, largely from the EU. Without the export market, and without workers to process fish, the fishing industry will see declines that cannot be mitigated by ending “unfair” fishing quotas or by ensuring sole access to parts of the North Atlantic.
The final piece of the puzzle is Northern Ireland. A puzzle piece that the UK conceded on Tuesday. It cannot be a coincidence that the government chose to sign off on Northern Ireland remaining within the regulatory boundaries of the EU, thereby effectively cutting it off from Great Britain, on the same day as the new Covid vaccine was rolled out, and rolled into Margaret Keenan and William Shakespeare. I am no conspiracy theorist, but I know a smoke screen when I see one.
Sarah Lieberman is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Canterbury Christ Church University. She is Co-Director of the Centre for European Studies. This blog first appeared on the Canterbury Christ Church University Expert Comment blog on 10 December 2020