29th December 2020
Imagine you are in some remote rural area where the bus or train only comes on a given day at a given time.
This is what it will be like for those who want to substantially change the relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union once the trade and cooperation agreement is in place.
But instead of the the weekly or monthly bus or train, this cycle will be every five years.
And if that opportunity is missed, then it will be another five years before the opportunity comes around again.
This is because of one major reason – and also (perhaps) because of five other reasons.
The first reason, as this blog set out yesterday, is that the European Union itself works in five-year cycles.
Each European Commission is appointed for five years and each European Parliament is elected for five years.
The Presidents of the European Council tend to also have five-year terms.
And after each five-year cycle, the European Union project is then (in effect) handed over to a new European Commission and President of the European Council.
It would thereby appear to be no accident that the review cycle for the trade and cooperation agreement is five years.
This means the European Union’s relationship with the United Kingdom will be dealt with in a manner that is convenient to Brussels and not London.
This leads to the second reason.
The United Kingdom is no longer sufficiently important to disrupt the normal European Union political and policy life-cycle.
This will come as a shock to many in the United Kingdom who are used to demanding time and immediate attention from the European Union.
From the supposed re-negotiation of 2016, through the withdrawal negotiations, to the relationship negotiations, the European Union kept responding to the sound of the clicking fingers of the United Kingdom.
And the European Union had to do this, as the departure of a Member State could not be taken lightly.
But this effortless priority is now over.
Any substantial changes to the new relationship will have to fit in with other matters and be dealt with at what is the natural pace of Brussels.
And, in any case, many in the European Union are bored and tired of Brexit.
The third reason is that it is only with five-year cycles that the European Union will be able to assess the stability and sustainability of any United Kingdom political and policy position on the European Union.
Even if there were some sudden political shift in favour of the United Kingdom joining, say, a customs union or becoming part of the single market, the European Union would want to see if that was a settled and consensual position.
The European Union is all too aware of the rapid convulsions that the European Union issue can cause to the politics of the United Kingdom.
Remember that in 2015 there was a general election in the United Kingdom where every major party was in favour of membership of the European Union – and three prime ministers and two general elections later, the United Kingdom is no longer a member state.
And 2015 was, well, five years ago.
The European Union has no interest in a substantial shift in its relationship with the United Kingdom which could quickly become undone.
The fourth reason is also to do with the United Kingdom.
Will there even be a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in five or ten years’ time?
As this blog has previously averred, two natural consequences of Brexit are a united Ireland and an independent Scotland.
These are not things which will necessarily, still less automatically, happen.
But they are foreseeable.
And so five-year cycles will allow the European Union to see not only how the politics and policies of the United Kingdom settle down, but also how the United Kingdom itself and its constituent parts settle down.
And this structural point goes both ways – for the fifth reason is that the European Union itself in five and ten years’ time may itself be a different creature to what it currently is.
Freed from the reluctance and relentless scepticism of the United Kingdom, the European Union can now go in a different direction.
And so not only will the European Union want to see what the United Kingdom is like in five and ten years’ time, it will want to see what its own position will be like.
It will not be re-fighting the issues of 2016 or 2020 in its engagement with the United Kingdom, like some geo-political historical re-enactment society.
Regardless of what changes (if any) happen within and to the United Kingdom, the European Union will be thinking in terms of what suits it in 2026, or 2031, or whenever.
The final reason is beyond the power of both the United Kingdom and the European Union.
In 2026, and in 2031, and so on, the world itself may be very different from now.
Many things may be different: a post-Trump (or revived Trump) United States, a post-Putin (or retained Putin) Russia, China becoming (or not becoming) the world’s largest economy, ongoing pandemics and climate change, and so on.
It may then suit the European Union and the United Kingdom to huddle together – or to huddle apart.
In setting all this out, I do not wish to give false hope to Remainers/Rejoiners that if with sufficient focus and energy, they could shove the United Kingdom back towards the European Union in 2026 or 2031 or so on.
Indeed, the five-year cycle could even lead to greater divergence.
(And there is a non-trivial chance the United Kingdom may terminate the relationship agreement with one year’s notice.)
But if there is to be a closer relationship – or even an eventual application to rejoin – the United Kingdom will have to have regard to the five-year cycles of the European Union.
As I mentioned above, the days of snapping fingers for attention are over.
My own view, for what it is worth, is that I hope the five-year cycle leads to an increasingly solid and sustainable association arrangement between the United Kingdom and the European Union – and that it becomes something that endures perhaps longer than the actual membership.
And I hope that the five-year cycles are used to adjust the relationship appropriately.
(I also support an Ireland united by consent and an independent Scotland and Wales, and these developments will also, in my opinion, be easier with an association agreement between United Kingdom (or just England) and the European Union.)
But these are mere hopes, and they can be dashed or discarded.
What is and will be in place, regardless of hopes (or fears), is that it will not be quick and easy for the United Kingdom – or England – to move substantially towards the European Union, let alone rejoin.
The eventful, exhausting 2016-2021 Brexit five-year cycle is over.
Let us see what future five-year cycles bring.
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