Public Affairs

Brexit: The end of the beginning

Deal or no deal, the UK actually leaving the EU will not end the Brexit saga. Leaving is just the end of the beginning, writes QUB’s David Phinnemore.

Next up will be negotiating a post-Brexit relationship with the EU as well as a replacement and new trade and other agreements with existing and new partners. If there is a withdrawal agreement, there will be a transition period to be managed as well as any specific arrangements for Northern Ireland.

What form the future relationship with the EU will take remains to be seen. With all the difficulties the UK Government has faced this year in securing agreement on the terms for withdrawal, only limited attention has been paid to the question of ‘what next’. What is clear is that there has been a lowering of ambition under Boris Johnson as Prime Minister. Gone is the aim of establishing ‘ambitious customs arrangements’ that ‘build and improve’ on the single UK-EU customs territory provided in the withdrawal agreement agreed with the May government.

Instead, the focus now is a free trade agreement, with suggestions of a ‘Canada-minus’-type arrangement and minimal regulatory alignment. Pledges to establishing a level playing field have gone. Instead, the Johnson government is insisting on being unconstrained in diverging from EU regulations so that the UK can proceed unconstrained in its pursuit of free trade deals with countries further afield, notably the US.

The implications for Northern Ireland of such a minimalist deal are likely to be significant, especially given, compared to the present, the additional checks and controls on cross-border trade it will entail if the original backstop proposals are not in place. The lack of ambition is important in other respects; free movement of services with the EU is not on the agenda. There is also the question of how a minimalist free trade agreement will impact the movement of goods to and from Great Britain depending on deal or no-deal arrangements.

Just as business and other interests in Northern Ireland lobbied for a favourable outcome in the Article 50 process, so too is there a need to mobilise to ensure that whatever post-Brexit relationship the UK seeks and establishes with the EU meets the needs of Northern Ireland. The same obviously applies to the new relationships with other partners.

This will require a shared sense of the Northern Ireland interest, meaningful access to policy-makers in London, and a government in London that genuinely listens to and acts on the needs of business and the wider society in Northern Ireland. For the relationship with the EU, it will also require influencing policy-makers in Brussels, including MEPs, and using all available mechanisms to do so. Direct engagement with Brussels is vital, as is engagement with Dublin whose support for securing the best outcome for Northern Ireland can often trump that of London.

With the EU, the willingness during the withdrawal process to finding ‘flexible and imaginative solutions’ to address the unique circumstances on the Ireland of island is likely to remain, at least initially. This does not mean that differentiated treatment of Northern Ireland should be the aim. The optimum outcome will be a UK-EU relationship that goes well beyond what was originally agreed in the backstop and so maintains the fullest possible access to the EU single market as well as the movement of goods across the border free of customs and other checks and controls.

David Phinnemore is a Professor of European Politics at Queen’s University Belfast.

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