Updated August 6, 2020, 9:26 p.m.
The clock is ticking: the Brexit transition phase ends at the end of the year. There is still no agreement in sight to regulate the future partnership – but without a deal, a hard Brexit threatens. Political scientists consider it almost inevitable.
It may have been forgotten in the face of the corona crisis, but: The United Kingdom left the European Union on February 1, 2020. After grueling discussions, the withdrawal agreement came into force six months ago so that the political and economic ties between the EU and Great Britain did not break from one day to the next.
The consequences of Brexit have therefore hardly been felt so far – the United Kingdom is still part of the EU internal market and the EU customs union. But the clock is ticking in the shadow of the pandemic, because the transition phase only lasts until December 31, as can also be read on the side of the federal government. London and Brussels have been negotiating future relations since February.
Brexit: what is the current status?
According to EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier after the round of negotiations at the end of July, it was at least unlikely that an agreement on a trade agreement could still be reached within the negotiation deadlines, spoke of “major differences” and the British government’s unwillingness to get out of the impasse. British negotiator David Frost sees it similarly – but naturally with the guilt on the other side of the negotiating table.
“The current negotiations have stalled,” says political scientist Roland Sturm from the Friedrich Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg in an interview with our editorial team. However, it is unclear whether it does not proceed for reasons of content or tactics. “Perhaps both sides do not want to compromise yet because the main negotiations are due in October,” said Sturm. Both sides rely on the other’s buckling.
“It is to be hoped that in addition to the public statement, there are threads of conversation in the background that you do not want to be torn down,” says political scientist Sabine Riedel from the “Science and Politics Foundation (SWP)”.
What are the biggest differences?
Red lines have been sketched from both sides that currently seem incompatible, explains the expert, who has already published an article about it in the magazine “Culture-Politics”. “Actually, the political declaration set the framework in which negotiations on the future economic and security partnership should take place,” says Riedel. The Brexit contract referred to “high standards for free and fair trade and workers’ rights, consumer and environmental protection”.
“But Barnier now wants to make the EU norms a reference point and force Great Britain to the European standards to participate in the internal market,” said the expert. This applies, for example, to social and employment standards, but also to questions about environmental standards and tax issues. “But some of them don’t even exist in the EU itself,” notes Riedel.
The fear in Brussels: London gains the advantages of the internal market, but distorts competition with undercutting measures. “The EU cannot allow this in its own interest. At the same time, however, the right to deviate from such standards is a basic idea of sovereignty, which the British were just trying to achieve through Brexit,” Sturm said. The British were ready for common standards, but did not want to be subordinate to the European Court of Justice (EUGH).
Acknowledgment for two-stage model
“The two-stage model – first negotiating the exit regulations and then working out a new partnership model – is now taking its toll,” analyzes Riedel. It was a mistake to outsource the issues in the transition phase. The Northern Ireland question remains a major problem.
“The peace that was guaranteed with the Good Friday Agreement threatens to become fragile,” feared Riedel. There is still a need to regulate the customs controls to be avoided between Northern Ireland and Ireland – i.e. between the future customs border between the United Kingdom and the EU.
Particularly controversial topic: fisheries policy
“Brussels also wants to cover all policy areas in a single trade agreement, London wants different contracts,” Riedel points out another point of contention. The British have in mind a free trade agreement plus other agreements on individual policy areas such as fisheries, law enforcement, transport, energy, climate change, migration, health and nuclear energy.
“Fishing is a particularly controversial issue,” says Riedel. While it is seen as a symbol of foreign competition in Britain and the British want to have exclusive fishing rights in the 200-mile zone along their coast, the EU continues to insist on access to Britain’s rich fishing grounds.
How likely is a hard Brexit?
So a lot of explosives. In view of this, can a hard Brexit be avoided at all? “It is speculation, but probably not,” says Sturm. At least the government in the UK is already preparing for a no-deal scenario, Boris Johnson has repeatedly expressed his willingness to do so. An extension of the transition phase is also no longer possible, London let the deadline for it in early July.
“The EU believes that the exit agreement is false security,” Sturm feared. It is currently protecting the rights of EU citizens living in the United Kingdom and the rights of British people living in the EU so that they can continue to live, work, study and enjoy social security there. “But Britain would have even more potential for extortion if it threatens to topple these agreements unless there is agreement on the economy,” said Sturm.
Trade contracts not in sight
In the eyes of the expert, however, that would not be wise in the eyes of the British experts: “In the current period, the British government did not actually want to fight Corona, but rather concluded a number of trade agreements – in order to offer alternatives to the EU market”, reminds the expert. However, nothing is in sight. “Presumably there will only be one draft by the end of the year. An agreement ratified by the EU Parliament and the national parliaments seems impossible to me in such a short time,” said the UK expert.
How dramatic a no deal would be depends on the industry. “Economically, Britain would suffer more, in the Covid crisis the country cannot afford a hard Brexit,” said Sturm. But Germany must also fear losses: In terms of export partners, the United Kingdom is in third place with around 80 billion euros directly behind France and the Netherlands.
What has to happen
In order to avoid a hard economic break with tariffs and trade barriers, Riedel also sees the EU as a duty. “Claims that the UK is currently boycotting or confronting the negotiations have no basis,” she said.
The EU must finally acknowledge that there is a “Europe” outside the EU and accept that not all of these European countries are striving for EU membership. The intransigence with which Barnier is demanding EU standards and rejecting contract offers reminds her of past colonial claims to power rather than a policy of balancing interests.
About the experts:
Prof. Dr. Sabine Riedel is an associate professor of political science at Otto-von-Guericke University Magdeburg and scientist at the Science and Politics Foundation in Berlin. Her areas of research include the European Union, as well as regional and international conflicts.
Prof. Dr. Roland Sturm holds the Chair for German and Comparative Politics, European Research and Political Economy at the Institute for Political Science at the Friedrich Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg. He has been involved in UK research for over 40 years.
- Interview with Prof. Dr. Roland Sturm
- Interview with Prof. Dr. Sabine Riedel
- Federal government: “The Brexit is here: Where do we stand? What happens next?”
- “Culture-Politics”: Sabine Riedel: “Brexit negotiations 2.0 come to an early end?”
- Withdrawal agreement (political declaration establishing the framework for future relations between the European Union and the United Kingdom)