Now that Great Britain has left the European Union, the next stage of Brexit is about leaving the internal market and concluding a new trade agreement. The framework for such an agreement is outlined in the joint Political Declaration. But it is becoming increasingly clear that the British are trying, step by step, to move away from that.
The negotiations are now entering their final round. Britain’s chances of an orderly withdrawal from the EU are diminishing day by day. Johnson has refused any extension of the deadline, emphasizing that the EU and the UK must reach a new trade agreement by the European Council meeting on 15-16 October this year or there will be a hard Brexit. However, even if an agreement is reached by mid-October against all expectations, it is difficult to imagine a treaty being ratified by the end of this year. The EU Parliament and the 27 member states of the EU as well as their national parliaments and (where applicable) regional parliaments must approve any free trade agreement. This will hardly be possible without an extension.
One of three points of contention in this round of negotiations is the fishing rights of EU member states in British waters. According to previous quota agreements, the EU states receive 60% of these. Since this is a question of numbers, an agreement should actually be possible with good will of all parties involved. Yet the accession negotiations with Norway in the seventies failed at exactly this hurdle. In his frustration, the then German Minister of Agriculture Josef Ertl had offered the Norwegians all the trout in the mountain stream that flowed through his property as compensation. They were not amused.
Second, it will be crucial to prevent distortions of competition after a trade agreement is concluded. Because of their notions of sovereignty, the British are considering unilaterally reducing quotas, customs duties, and environmental and social standards in order to gain a competitive advantage. In the interest of all EU member states, Michel Barnier has firmly refused to accept this. The logic is that the same regulatory conditions must apply to the EU and the UK. This question is hardly negotiable for either side.
Third, the Northern Ireland question, which actually seemed to have been solved in the context of the Withdrawal Agreement, is once again looming threateningly on the horizon. Contrary to the agreements that Johnson himself had pushed through in the Withdrawal Agreement before his parliamentary elections, the British government now plans to carry out only minimal customs controls between the UK and the province of Northern Ireland—instead of the agreed-upon controls on all goods imported or exported. Johnson has implied he will use British laws to unilaterally abolish the previous border arrangements. Ireland and the EU have forcefully criticized such an idea. It would invalidate the Good Friday Agreement concluded 20 years ago—the basis for the peace agreement between the ethnic groups. It cannot be ruled out that Johnson wants to take this step in order to let the negotiations fail and blame the EU. Even British government circles admit that this behavior is contrary to international law. “However,” they say, “this is justified by special circumstances.”
Johnson considers himself unassailable because of his comfortable majority of 80 parliamentary seats. But if the consequences of a disorderly withdrawal become clear to all British people one day, things could flip very quickly. Johnson should have realized during his coronavirus illness, if not before, what national sovereignty is really worth in a global world. For too long, he had played down the danger of the epidemic. He has many victims to answer for. The number of corona cases is increasing rapidly; Johnson has failed to deal with this crisis. The result? The British economy is in a desolate state, in a deeper recession than in the rest of the EU-28. More and more people are losing their jobs. Poverty is spreading. And Scotland’s demands for a new independence referendum are becoming more urgent.
It is obvious Johnson wants a hard Brexit. His motivation is controversial. Does he himself believe in what he says, or is he just playing poker to exert pressure? He is certainly driven by one wish: to throw off all EU shackles in order to be able to conclude trade agreements worldwide. Already today, he promises his country a glorious future.
If Johnson doesn’t have another divine enlightenment, the European economy will have to prepare itself for chaos on the UK borders at the beginning of next year. Traffic jams, delivery problems—everything has been discussed for months.
The British have been one of Germany’s most important partners for a long time. We regard them as close friends. It is hard to imagine that this relationship will remain so unencumbered after this Brexit process. Alienation is hardly avoidable. Human contacts are decreasing. Entering and staying in Britain will become more difficult. In particular, the exchange between young people will decrease. Germany will be particularly affected by the withdrawal.
The architecture of the European Community has cracked. We are losing a particularly close partner in security and foreign policy as well as economically.
We should keep the divide as shallow as possible and tie Great Britain as closely as possible to Europe. In doing so, we have to go to our pain threshold. In a world made up of leaders like Trump, Putin, Erdogan, Bolsonaro and the Chinese leadership, in a world where everything once thought unthinkable has become conceivable, one should keep old friends and allies as close as possible. With the conflict between Turkey and Greece, the rift with Russia, crises in Belarus, Syria, China, the refugee crisis, the epidemic and finally the challenges of climate change, there are tensions and problems wherever you look. The USA has withdrawn. If Trump is reelected, Johnson, especially in this period of his country’s weakness, should not fall prey to the illusion that he will get a better deal with America than with the European Union. For Trump, as ever, it is America First.
By Jürgen Chrobog, Fmr. German Ambassador to the USA and State Secretary of the German Foreign Service, Partner at Berlin Global Advisors