Since 2016 now, the European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom (UK) are working to enable the UK to leave the EU. At the beginning of 2020, the UK officially left the Union, while there is still a transition period until the end of the year. This event, which is commonly known as the ‘Brexit’, has been one of the core issues of European politics over the past decade. Not only does the UK’s wish to leave the political union polarised the domestic population, but it also had regional repercussions throughout the European continent, encouraging anti-Union movements across Europe to pursue their agenda more aggressively. The Brexit is truly a treasure for social scientists, because of the various interactions of multiple political and societal layers that are intertwined in unique temporal interdependencies. In other words, the Brexit’s past, present and future give us sheer endless material to study. For example, scholars from behavioural sciences are trying to better understand the voting decisions of the British people and their reactions on the referendum afterwards. Public administration experts are concerned with the management aspects of the transition from the EU framework to a national order. Economists closely monitor the implications of the Brexit for the financial markets and broader economic development. International relations scholars reassess the UK’s position in the world of international politics and also how European politics might change. And finally, political scientists somewhat deal with many hybrid issues of the above-mentioned aspects. This article assesses the final deal that was recently signed just a week before the transition period ends. Mainly, it is concerned with the question how UK leaving the EU under the given circumstances will affect the EU politically.
Choices over choices
Political processes in democratic settings are often characterised by lengthy procedures. In most cases, this is caused by the multitude of potential policy options and competing interests that favour different options. Looking at the Brexit situation, it took the UK around 4 years to officially leave the EU. What followed were lengthy negotiations on cooperation in the post-Brexit era. One of the few remaining topics were the alignment of regulatory standards in the soon separated markets and the movement of goods and people. The EU feared that the UK might undercut European competitors’ prices and by loosening environmental protection and labour standards, as well. On the other side, the UK tried to keep transaction costs in the post-Brexit era as low as possible, while regaining political and economic autonomy.
From a European perspective, there were different approaches how to design a future relationship with Britain. First, it could take a soft stance that would allow the UK to leave the Union without major restructuring procedures. By making such concessions, the EU might have retained better diplomatic ties with a possible re-integration to the Union in the future. Such a course would have been devastating, because it would further spur populist movements across Europe, as it would give them leverage to argue that leaving the bloc would have no real consequences. Another option would be for the two parties to maintain a hybrid partnership, which would allow for a mix of concessions from both sides. The quality of the compromise would be heavily dependent on the success of the responsible negotiators, but it would generally be a rather acceptable course for both sides in the short-run. Assessing this option from a long-term perspective, however, could also undermine the spirit of the EU. Ultimately, the European community could think: “If there is little to no change to us, why should we remain in the Union and give up our autonomy”? As a third way, the EU could have opted for a more offensive strategy. Here, the representatives of the member states could have taken a firm stance by saying that if anyone wishes to leave the Union to regain full autonomy, they should not expect to also profit from the advantages of the Union. In the short-run, this stance is certainly risky, because it bears the danger that the British population, as well as parts of the European population, will be negatively affected by such a policy direction. Further, the UK is a significant economic actor in the region and this stance could have provoked a more aggressive competitive response from the British side. However, looking at it from a more long-term perspective, it would have greatly strengthened the EU, because it would have reaffirmed the EU as a normative and visionary project, while also deterring smaller nations from leaving the EU, as they might fear alienation afterwards.
Now, the two parties agreed on a deal on 24 December 2020. The adopted policy direction can be described as a hybrid solution, as there are more and lesser coordinated matters. Mainly, there will be no tariffs and quotas between the two parties. Further, the social, environmental, labour and tax standards shall remain harmonised. In the event of one party undercutting the other, tariffs may be imposed to balance out the competitive advantage. As expected, citizens will not be able to move freely between the two territories, but the inconveniences for travel are at a bare minimum, since there will not be any visa requirements. Another comparatively important aspect is that professional qualifications obtained in Britain are no longer recognised in the EU – and vice versa – and professionals need to obtain a relevant recognition from the authorities in the respective country they want to work in.
Overall, the deal has little to no controversial elements to it and is a classic example for policy-making in the international arena. It consists of desired elements from both sides, which balance each other out. Because of its sheer size and power, the EU had a slightly better bargaining position, but needed to be careful as well, since the results of this deal also affect the future of the Union. Plainly said, if the the UK does now better than before, which is highly unlikely, other European member states might follow the British example and, hence, endanger the European project. However, it should be clear that the EU is more than just a collection of convenient regulations that allows its citizens to study everywhere within the Union or to travel without restrictions – the EU is more than the sum of its parts. The collective political system has developed into the most efficient political systems of all time, bringing about great political and legal progress and security. European law is at the forefront of strict environmental regulation and in the field of product standards, which both are highly important aspects of sustainable economies.
The UK will not see much change in these areas and the minor inconvenience of passport controls at the border is something pro-Brexit voters would even welcome. Because of that, it can be said that the UK is the true winner of this whole situation. It still profits from the European economy and from the umbrella of political power of the Union, while primarily only giving up the luxury of faster bureaucratic procedures for people that move between the territories for travel, business or education. As mentioned before, if the UK happens to do at least equally well as before, the European idea is in danger. Other nations with strong populist sentiments might flirt with the idea of leaving the Union, too. Such a domino effect would be devastating for this project that has made the region so stable and was the motor of decade-long growth. Whether this deal will truly harm the EU in the future remains to be seen, but it should be clear that if the European Union wants to survive, it needs to not only prevent other states from leaving, but also needs to seek further enlargement.