Finally, an era ends for the UK, EU

Finally, an era ends for the UK, EU

Brexit was originally meant to happen in March 2019, but the deadline was extended twice after MPs rejected the deal negotiated by Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May

The UK has entered uncharted waters and its global interlocutors would be hoping that it resolves its problems with the EU sooner rather than later. (Credit: AFP Photo)

Finally, after more than three years of domestic political wrangling, the United Kingdom officially left the European Union (EU) on January 31. A landmark day in the history of both the world’s foremost supranational organisation and the UK. There is now a transition period till the end of 2020 during which the two sides will try to firm up their arrangements. Till then, it would seem as if nothing much has changed. During this 11-month hiatus, the UK will continue to follow all of the EU’s rules and its trading relationship will remain the same. But change, there has been, and a radical one at that. The EU and the UK will look remarkably different when the final arrangements come into effect.

This outcome became possible because of the mandate Boris Johnson got in the December election, which he fought on the promise of getting Brexit done. Brexit was originally meant to happen in March 2019, but the deadline was extended twice after MPs rejected the deal negotiated by Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May. After she resigned, Johnson took over, but he too couldn’t end the parliamentary stalemate. So, he called for elections and the Tories under Johnson’s leadership secured 365 seats in the House of Commons in the party’s best showing in a parliamentary election since 1987 as Britons fed up with the never-ending debate on Brexit called for a final resolution. This was reflected in Johnson’s message last week before the UK’s departure when he vowed to bring the country together and “take us forward”, underlining that “for many people, this is an astonishing moment of hope, a moment they thought would never come. And there are many, of course, who feel a sense of anxiety and loss.”

While there were celebrations in many quarters, there were also pro-EU marches as well as anti-Brexit rallies. In Scotland, where the Scottish nationalists are calling for a new referendum on independence, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted: “Scotland will return to the heart of Europe as an independent country - #LeaveALightOnForScotland.” Divisions over the EU in the UK are not going to disappear and, in fact, the struggle in the future might get more intense.

The UK-EU skirmishes, too, will continue. European leaders have expressed sadness at the UK’s departure from the EU. French President Emmanuel Macron said he was “deeply sad” while the EU’s Guy Verhofstadt underlined his desire to “ensure the EU is a project you’ll want to be a part of again.” But as the two proceed to discussions on a free trade agreement (FTA), cooperation on security, and new arrangements for fishing, among others, intense negotiations lie ahead and nothing is a given. Brexit has generated a sense of solidarity among the remaining EU member-states to ensure no more exits happen and in the process a hardening of attitude towards Britain is natural.

The momentum will shift towards the trade deal which Johnson wants to have in place by the end of the year. As the UK and EU get ready to outline their negotiating stance this week, Britain is suggesting that it won’t “be aligning with EU rules” in any post-Brexit trade deal even as the EU would want the UK to continue to follow the EU rules on standards. Johnson is keen to get a Canada-style free trade deal but as the Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar made it clear, “Canada isn’t the UK; you’re geographically part of the European continent, we share seas and airspace and our economies are very integrated.” It is certainly in the interest of both sides to get a deal done, but it remains a massive task. There are multiple fault lines which will shape the course of these negotiations which can once again derail UK-EU ties. These include disputes about fisheries, the role of the European Court of Justice, need for a level playing field and the services sector.

The UK is now keen to move ahead with finalising FTAs with countries such as the US, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Johnson has also talked of India as a key nation with which the UK would be keen to strike a trade deal post-Brexit. This will be happening even as the fundamental underpinnings of British foreign policy will need to be re-evaluated now that Britain’s traditional approach to its external relations has become redundant. How global post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ can remain will be the challenge for London as the domestic turmoil of the last three years has meant Britain focusing more and more inwards.

The UK has entered uncharted waters and its global interlocutors would be hoping that it resolves its problems with the EU sooner rather than later. An internally pre-occupied UK will continue to be marginal in world affairs despite the best intentions of its government. India has a range of equities in a stable UK-India partnership and it, too, would be hoping for the emergence of a more globally engaged Britain. An era has ended for the UK with its formal departure from the EU, but the UK is yet to articulate its new global role for its new era. India and the world are watching. (The writer is Director, Studies, at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations, King’s College, London)

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