Four months after the end of the transition arrangements there is still no clear view of the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union

4th April 2021

The United Kingdom ceased to be a member of the European Union over fourteen months ago, and the transition arrangements came to an end on 31st December 2020.

Regardless of whether you take the fourteen-month or the four-month period as the true duration so far of Brexit, what is not coming into view is the shape of the future relationship.

My own view – which is pretty much a minority view, as it has been since the dawn of Brexit – is that the United Kingdom and European Union would be best having a close association agreement, where the the legal form would be that the United Kingdom was not a member of the European Union but the substance would be that we would continue to be part of the single market and the customs union.

Issues of representation, consultation and mutual influence would be dealt with by dedicated EU+UK institutions – and such consensual and sustainable institutions would be the answer to the charge that the European Union would be imposing law and policy on an independent United Kingdom.

But this middle way position is still not in sight, and many still see the Brexit debate in the leave/remain binary.

As far as I am aware, no front-rank politician has yet set out a positive vision of the institutional, law and policy framework of the relationship of a post-Brexit United Kingdom and the European Union.

The government is still in its toy-room of gesture politics.

The official opposition is silent.

Those in favour of the United Kingdom becoming a member (again) of the European Union are still – wrongly, in my view, for reasons set out here – emphasising rejoining the European Union, rather than making a positive case from scratch, that is a case without depending on our previous membership.

Those remainers who accept Brexit in principle are saying little about how the United Kingdom should engage

Those in favour of Brexit in principle are still, to use the famous phrase, the dog that caught the car.

There is drift instead of where post-Brexit development of medium- to long-term policy should be.

The removal of Trump from the American presidency and the ongoing pandemic are further disorientating features.

In the absence of constructive policy formulation, we have from ministers shouty confrontation and culture wars instead.

But as was averred on the cover of a Fat Boy Slim album, they are already number one, so why should they try harder?

The politics of Brexit and beyond have still not settled.

Maybe they will not settle for some time.

Maybe, even, we are still in the early years of a Boris Johnson government – or that he will be replaced by someone even less suited to building a constructive relationship with the European Union.

And, to be even-handed, there is little sign in Brussels and other European Union capitals that they too are seeking a new model relationship with the United Kingdom.

If anything, there is a defensive-rearguard urge just to keep the current withdrawal and relationship agreements in place, let alone think about the future.

And the impending Scottish elections and the politics of Ireland and Northern Ireland may even mean there be soon no United Kingdom to have a relationship with the European Union.

All up in the air, still.

So four months on, there is almost no indication of what the long-term post-Brexit relationship will be like.

Volatility may be the new norm.

Brace, brace.


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24 thoughts on “Four months after the end of the transition arrangements there is still no clear view of the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union”

  1. Is it the result of the incompetence of the UK government that various “industries” in the UK such as (recently reported) Scottish seafood, Chocolates, cheeses etc. have lost their EU markets? Clearly, countries with relationships (like Canada) or following WTO rules sell their exports in the EU. There have been reports of shipments to the EU from the UK disappearing and never arriving at their destination.
    Trade relations are complicated. Canada has a free trade agreement with the US and Mexico and is a member of the CPTPP along with Mexico and nine other countries but not the US. Problems don’t seen to make the news. Is it just the newsworthiness of Brexit that accounts for this? I doubt that. To repeat my initial question are we talking about the incompetence of the UK government?

    1. No it is not incompetence.

      Yes many countries sell many things to the EU. The UK is free to do likewise. But the EU cannot allow unchecked access for all imports, especially potentially dangerous imports (eg live class 2 shellfish and others with phytosanitary consequences), if it does not have good remedies in the event of its citizens suffering from, say, food poisoning or its farmers suffering from, say, an outbreak of foot and mouth disease. As the UK has deliberately removed itself from the oversight of the ECJ, there must now be border checks. As a result, goods it previously traded within the Single market must suffer friction.

      None of this should be any surprise to the UK. Not only did the UK participate in making these rules, for decades it applied them to imports from Third Countries on behalf of its EU partners as part of a joint and collaborative effort to protect the Single Market.

      The government knows all of this and is telling lies.

    2. We negotiated a downgrade in trade relations with the EU. Canada negotiated an upgrade. That is all that is needed to explain the difference between the two countries experiences.

  2. “Brace, brace” suggests an imminent crash landing, but aren’t we, in all likelihood, heading for an extended period of severe turbulence rather than the “closure” of any landing?

    1. Another (hardly enticing) scenario is possible too. What about the plane continuing to glide for a long while but the passengers dying on the plane … or exiting it in a forlorn attempt to save their lives?

      We’re a nation of 67 million living on a tiny patch of land. We’re not self-sufficient – therefore we have to earn our living by trade.
      Our competitiveness as a trading nation has been declining for decades (possibly for 150 years). Membership of the EU gave us a much-needed boost by cutting our costs of trading and giving us a marketing advantage over “third countries”.

      The UK’s Brexit deal means a lot of formerly UK based companies are having to move their operations to the EU so we’re losing jobs, investment, control of business costs and development opportunities for UK managers in what will be the regionally managed (eg EU) businesses of the future. We’re losing trade routes between the UK and EU (and beyond).

      So we’ll be sitting on our island, cut off from everywhere, wondering how we feed ourselves. While many Brits will want to emigrate they’re not likely to find any country to welcome them. Having got ourselves into this mess it’s not clear how we get out of it.

  3. “The politics of Brexit and beyond have still not settled.”

    Is that because they haven’t been given any thought, beyond the mantra Get Brexit Done?

  4. I’m very sympathetic to the suggestion outlined above. But I can’t see it gaining traction with the sovereignty absolutists unless it’s possible to set out in more detail how the new relationship would work eg the role of the European Court in adjudicating disputes. And how membership of the single market could work without freedom of movement (which I’m wholly in favour of but which for the time being seems to be politically taboo). Perhaps there are ways of creating a new mutually beneficial relationship which require fresh thinking on both sides and a willingness to break with established orthodoxies. I suspect that we won’t even get to the starting grid without a new Government

  5. Your solution is too sensible. At the moment the UK is riding high and the EU is suffering but that is not guaranteed long term. We may become the sick man of Europe again, the country could split apart and Scotland rejoin. Until something significant happens, war, pestilence, flood, real climate emergency, we will struggle on getting weaker. I can’t see an upside.

    1. Sadly I share your view for I, possibly like you but certainly like a great many others, have a vested interest in the welfare and well being of this country which is the future of my children and grandchild.

  6. ‘ Issues of representation, consultation and mutual influence would be dealt with by dedicated EU+UK institutions – and such consensual and sustainable institutions would be the answer to the charge that the European Union would be imposing law and policy on an independent United Kingdom’.

    What is in it for the EU in this scenario? They grant access to their market (6x size of ours) on ‘consensual’ terms, to what end? They have pretty much everything they need now: tariff free access to the UK for goods (as net exporters), and legal and data barriers to reclaim services from us (as net importers).

    Even if there is something here of interest to the EU (and I have to-date heard nobody articulate it), why create a credible alternative to the EU, creating a defendable ‘out’ for the right wing antagonist in Poland, Hungary, the Netherlands preferring easy solutions?

  7. It’s very difficult to see how a consensual relationship with the EU combined with membership of both the single market and customs union would work in reality. It’s either the EU allowing dilution of membership requirements on one hand (with no financial contributions!) or the UK acceptingjust about all decisions of the 27 nation EU Council on the other.

    The EU treaties cover just about all the checks and balances between the sovereignty of the member states and the collective decision making in the centre. There isn’t really room for another version that makes sense to the EU unless we really had something that they desperately needed

    1. “It’s very difficult to see how a consensual relationship with the EU combined with membership of both the single market and customs union would work in reality.”

      In cases of a conflict of interest between the UK and the EU, how should that be resolved? If there is to be a negotiated solution (as to avoid the appearance that ‘rules and regulations are imposed on the UK’), then this gives the UK way more power and influence as other, ‘normal’ member states. That CANNOT happen, the EU CANNOT permit this, it’s an immovable red line for the EU.

      Additionally, how should any single market infringements by the UK be policed? Any alternatives to the ECJ (which is a political red-line for the UK government) would be seen as an extrawurst for the UK – and too many people in the EU (politicians and citizens) have gone on record to indicate how fed up they are to make that a political no-no for the EU. And whatever Goodwill might have existed, that has now disappeared – the recent shenanigans of the UK government are responsible for that.

  8. As a German and therefore EU citizen I don´t quite see how your middle position, as nice as it sounds, can work?

    Single market.
    I´ve read somewhere that the single market (simplified) rests on four pillars:
    1) Common rules and regulations
    2) The member states are responsible for checks in their country to make sure the rules are followed. They regularly have to report the results of their checks to the EU commission.
    3) The EU commission is responsible for supervising the member states. In cases of suspected violations the commission has the right to send auditors to that member state. In cases of proven violations they can got to the
    4) European Court of Justice for enforcement of the rules.

    (EFTA has the EFTA surveillance authority in Brussels and the EFTA Court in Luxembourg for pillars 3 and 4. EFTA members get consulted for new / changed rules but have no voting rights (for pillar 1).)

    Just how can “issues of representation, consultation and mutual influence be dealt with by dedicated EU+UK institutions”? In “consensual and sustainable institutions”?

    That sounds like a parallel EU with just two member states, the EU and the UK as equal partners. What happens if there is no consensus about a particular regulation?
    As Sir Ivan Rogers warned in one speech, the EU will never permit unrestricted access to the single market without supervision and enforcement. Which would immediately result in shouts of outrage in the UK about loss of “sovereignty”.

    Just how can “charge that the European Union would be imposing law and policy on an independent United Kingdom” be avoided unless you give the UK a veto on EU decisions? Which won´t happen. And pick and choose which regulation to follow won´t work either.

    Such a construct would also mean that the EFTA countries would be in a worse position than the UK. And would understandably demand re-negotiations. Which would result in years of negotiations, both with EFTA and the UK. Time the EU could spend better with other things.

    And I haven´t even mentioned freedom of movement.

    Concerning your remark that “there is little sign in Brussels and other European Union capitals that they too are seeking a new model relationship with the United Kingdom”.

    Isn´t that a bit difficult if you deal with a British government that negotiates and signs treaties and agreements and a few months later tries to break them? Rearguard action here means insisting on fulfilling obligations.
    How can there be trust to seek a new model relationship if that British government tries to avoid fulfilling its obligations from already signed treaties?

    1. We can’t join EFTA and be members of the EU’s Customs Union. EFTA already have tariff deals with other third countries, which they would expect a new member to accede to, which are incompatible with the EU Customs Union. But membership of both Single Market and Customs Union is required to fully answer the Irish Question: the Customs Union to ensure zero tariffs across all goods and services, and the Single Market to remove the need for non-tariff checks. As a result we need a third set of parallel organisations, alongside (for example) the ECJ and EFTA Court, unless we could decide that one of those organisations does the job.

      But as you say, the most we could hope for is that the UK would be consulted on new Single Market rules and Customs Union tariff rates. If we want to actually vote on them, we must rejoin the EU itself. Which, in my view, we must do. The ‘democratic deficit’ is far stronger if a member of SM+CU with no representation, than as a full member.

      There is no squaring this circle. Accept that being a peer of 27 other nations makes us all stronger, and forget this petty nationalism which places us below those other nations in our international standing.

    2. Thank you for pointing out the flaws in what I called a ‘sensible solution’. My first thoughts which I didn’t post were that the proposal was yet another case of wanting your cake and eat it. I didn’t go down that line for obvious reasons. You have brought it back to reality. I voted to remain, went on the marches with many friends and colleagues, and hope that those who voted to leave prosper although I suspect they may ultimately see the error of their ways and admit as much. I’m not holding my breath.

  9. DAG No need to post.

    However should it not be 3 months rather than 4 post 31 December 2020. We are hardly into April.

    Or am I missing something? 🤔

    1. You are missing something – April is the fourth month since December. I am sorry nothing else in my post was worthy of comment!

  10. I’ve been reading Tim Shipman’s Fall out: a year of political mayhem about the first year of the May government. Early on, when what “Leave means Leave” was being debated, the members of the inner cabinet committee had a presentation on the EU. It’s clear that many of them knew of Leave as an abstract concept, but had very little idea of the concrete realities of what they were trying to do. They didn’t realise just how extensive the remit of the ECJ was, far beyond the SM and CU, covering the EU’s agencies.

    You might think — hope and expect — that Leavers are better informed today of the complexities and interconnections within the EU, but it doesn’t seem so.

    Those advocating that the UK would act with the EU, the Commonwealth, and the “Anglosphere” as a sort of centre to this nexus, have never really explained how this would work, or even why the members of the other two groupings would support the “Mother Country”.

    If there’s no clear view of the future, it’s because the UK government doesn’t know in practical, realistic, achievable terms what’s possible, and so far, haven’t tried to find out.

  11. > But as was averred on the cover of a Fat Boy Slim album, they are already number one, so why should they try harder?

    It’s worse than this. The Conservative party have optimised for two things: staying in power and enriching the interests that support them.

    They have found a method that works to achieve these ends and having an effective relationship with the EU is probably at best irrelevant, and at worst detrimental to those objectives.

    Johnson is effective in this scenario because he has no personal political agenda (such as improving the wellbeing of the UK) which would cut across these objectives.

    Moreover, the pandemic, like Brexit, has shown that even if he makes a dreadful mess of a major issue he can stay in power by being seen to ride in later to sort them out.

    As in Taleb’s Antifragile, instability is a plus for the Conservatives, not a thing to be eradicated.

  12. The current Government of England and its occupied territories of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is clueless. The Prime Minister is a mendacious individual who is too lazy to get involved in detail. He is more interested in vanity projects and “photo ops”. “Lord” Frost, whose “enoblement” was an insult to hard working peers, seems intent on insulting the EU. The EU has more pressing issues to deal with than a nuisance country off its Western coast.

    The prospect of any sensible, mutually beneficial arrangement going forward is remote.

  13. I can only comment on the sector that I have been involved in most of my professional working life – product design and manufacturing. A realistic way forward for the UK would be to rejoin the EEA not necessarily EFTA. In fact this may be necessary if the UK wishes to have even basic materials (ie steel, aluminium, glass and pharmaceuticals) available to service the home market.

    Whilst the winning Brexiters doubtless cheer that Honda will be leaving the UK this summer rather than become their European hub of the forthcoming electric vehicle revolution, they have not yet proposed the replacement British manufacturer. This will be repeated until the volumes of basic produce become uneconomic, at least for export, whilst EU companies grow and take advantage. This is a problem for a nation not self sufficient in food let alone certain minerals, oil, gas and other resources.

    It is important to realise that the UK has not gone back to 1972 but pre 1960 when it started EFTA, sometimes known as the outer seven. We are now the outer one.

    Four hundred years of UK foreign policy has been to prevent a total coalition of European countries to be united against the UK. I think the current government needs to explain why this is beneficial and what the plan is. Perhaps it is military conflict, though our reliance on US and EU countries hardware might make that interesting….

    There is no vision that I can discern from the leading advocates of Brexit beyond a viscerable hatred of all things European let alone the EU construct. However there is equally no alternative vision as alluded to by DAG. Both these things should already be embryonic at least in our current polity.

    Personally I don’t see rejoining the EU this side of 2035 at the earliest. However that does not mean that closer (EEA or EEA type) cooperation should not be achievable well before that. It may well be the only way that UK manufacturing as well as sevice industries can survive. The narratives of the opposing views need to set out well before any 2024 General Election though it may well be that next May’s local and MSP elections have a far greater impact on the UK, if there is to be a UK. In my own view Scotland left in June ’16, it will just take time to play out.

    What then for the Brexit vision with England surrounded on all side with EU or EU acession countries? I think we should be told.

  14. I think Carl is close to the reality. Maybe they did not plan Brexit that way but….

    Cui Bono – for whom was Brexit meant to be a benefit? Rational analysis saw no economic benefit and the sovereignty benefit was an illusion. When will the ERG or the newspaper barons be kind enough to let us know to contents of their secret plan. I don’t think there was a plan as such, the Tory Right saw an opportunity, the UK’s internal structure and housing plans created the environment, add in a weak Prime Minister and voila. But Cui Bono – no-one really.

    Which begs the question where next. As said, re-joining is not an option and Singapore-on-Thames is not a realistic option either. Meanwhile the world marches on and changes brought about by Covid do not look beneficial to Mr & Mrs Average. The share of pie coming to The West looks a little smaller, having a slab of the Western economy take itself out of the running is a benefit to all the rest including the EU – trebles all round.

  15. French TV on Sunday night had a piece about summer holidays post Covid in Europe. It centred around cross border issues. It then moved to third party nations and immediately had a screen shot of London.

    The EU will listen politely to outsiders but then decide policy and direction at EU 27 level in the hope that this will best benefit its 450 million individual members. This is happening.

    As to a Uk return please read the Charles de Gaulle speech of 1963 at least twice because it is still highly relevant.

    Brits might be good shopkeepers when it comes to cashing up and doing daily accounts but they are not quite so good at marketing customer care and dealing with suppliers .

    The net cost of Eu membership was a few pounds per week
    per UK citizen but the benefits bought such as visa free travel cross border banking and open access to markets were not properly considered.

    Eu citizens invariably smile about the Uk. Behind the smile is the view that you have now thrown the baby out with the bath water and the 450 million prefer to stay on dry land rather than get wet.

    History (accepting that Britain is an exceptional case) indicates that the Eu one day will either decline or implode. This though is unlikely to happen during any of our lifetimes and the Eu/Uk relationship has been understood and accepted by the Eu for this time scale.

    This is the future relationship.

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