24th February 2021
One of the wisest and most perceptive of political commentators is Rafael Behr – and at the end of a recent wise and perceptive column is this wise and perceptive observation:
‘For the true believers, a good Brexit is one that keeps the grievance alive; that makes foreigners the scapegoat for bad government; that continues to indulge the twin national myths of victimhood and heroic defiance. Measured for that purpose, Johnson’s pointless Brexit is perfect.’
Another commentator Mujtaba Rahman makes similar points in this depressingly plausible thread:
I've been of view for some time that TCA represents high point in what's likely to be a difficult & deteriorating UK/EU relationship. Despite public pronouncements to contrary, in private, officials on both sides now acknowledge that this seems likely 1/5— Mujtaba Rahman (@Mij_Europe) February 23, 2021
Is there anything in these pessimistic takes?
Are things likely to now get worse – or at least not get any better?
As I set out in this Financial Times video, the trade and cooperation agreement is structured deliberately as framework for ongoing negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom:
This requirement for ongoing engagement is a feature – and not a bug – of the departure arrangements.
There are institutions and processes in place for constant dialogue – and five-yearly cycles are expressly envisaged for more fundamental shifts in the relationship.
The formal relationship will be, and is intended to be dynamic, not static.
This was, of course, always likely to be the case with a Brexit which has been conducted at speed and with little or no planning or indeed thought.
Many things were left undone with the intention of dealing with them later.
But whatever the explanation, one thing that can be said with certainty is that the Brexit we have had is not a ‘once-and-for-all’ event where ‘with-one-bound-we-were-free’.
So regardless of the mood of politicians the law and policy process of Brexit has not gone away – and may well never do so, at least for a political generation or two (or three).
Law and policy is one thing – and politics is another.
One can perhaps envisage a future – even under the current arrangements – where the Brexit issue is de-intensified, and where everyone gets on in a post-Brexit context.
If the observations of Behr and others are correct such an outlook is unduly optimistic.
Many Brexit arguments are instead now beginning – and will become all the more intense because now they have supposed facts of ‘EU v UK’ to feed off, as opposed to the definite fictions.
If this is the case, then there will be implications for the framework provided by the trade and cooperation agreement.
For that framework is intended implicitly as almost a technocratic device – a means by which two friendly entities merely and boringly manage a relationship, making adjustments as they go along.
Talking shops, not boxing rings.
Less clear is how the trade and cooperation agreement – and also the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol of the prior withdrawal agreement – will take a never-ending storm of partisanship and hostility.
That is not what these agreements were designed for.
The clue is in the ‘cooperation’ part of the very name ‘trade and cooperation agreement’.
Cooperation it says, and not confrontation.
It is not a trade and confrontation agreement.
Few things are inevitable in human affairs.
It is still only February – the month after the Brexit transition arrangements came to an end.
Nothing that has so far happened can demonstrate with certainty what the first few years of Brexit will be like.
Things may calm down, or things may get far worse, or something new may come along which changes everything.
All that said, however, this early volatility indicates that any easy and quick passage of the United Kingdom to full participation in the European Union single market and customs union is unlikely – and still less the prospect of rejoining.
Even if things do calm down, they are now unlikely to go back to how they were.
The key political question now is whether the government and its political and media supporters can themselves ‘move on’ from Brexit.
For if they cannot politically ‘move on’ then the Brexit withdrawal and cooperation arrangements (which this government itself negotiated, signed, won an electoral mandate for, and implemented into law) will be politicised and contested in the same way membership of the European Union was politicised and contested.
And it is not inevitable that the Brexit withdrawal and cooperation arrangements will be able to withstand such sustained political assaults.
The Brexit withdrawal and cooperation arrangements may have replaced full membership of the European Union, but that does not mean there is in turn an even-smaller Russian doll of a formal relationship available if those arrangements fail.
If the Brexit withdrawal and cooperation arrangements crash, there may be nothing to replace them.
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