EU, UK unions under stress as a result of Brexit
The historic UK-EU trade deal, which was secured on Christmas Eve and took effect this week, is seen by many as the end of Brexit. However, the huge, wide-ranging processes unleashed by the UK’s 2016 referendum result are only just beginning to play out in ways that could have contrasting implications for the two parties.
While the 2020s could see a more federal, centralized EU in the wake of the UK’s departure, the opposite may be true for the UK itself. With pressure growing for Scottish independence and potentially even Irish reunification, this decade will be an uncertain time for the union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The immediate backdrop for this is the UK-EU trade breakthrough that was, mostly, welcome news for European and wider global business after more than four years of Brexit uncertainty. However, this was tempered by the fact the agreement was the first international trade negotiation in history that ensured barriers went up, rather than down, compared to the status quo. It also does not cover the services sector, which accounts for 80 percent and 70 percent of the UK and EU economies, respectively.
Much attention in the last half-decade has focused on the trade deal (and the earlier withdrawal agreement) negotiations. This has obscured the fact that the UK referendum set off a much wider set of changes. Indeed, the EU-UK trade talks were, in fact, only one sub-set of much broader, forward-looking debates in four areas: Between the EU and the UK; within the UK; within the EU; and also between the UK, EU and the rest of the world.
Take the example of the EU-UK discussions on their future relationship. Important as the Christmas Eve deal is, there are key holes in it, not just for economic sectors like financial services, but also other critical areas of cooperation, including foreign and defense policy, which had originally been proposed to be in the agreement.
Within the EU, there are several key debates about the 27-member bloc’s future well underway, including rebalancing the union given the new balance of power within it; and whether the EU now integrates further, disintegrates or muddles through. With the UK no longer a member, the EU-27 has already made significant steps toward greater federalism. One example is the €750 billion ($918 billion) coronavirus recovery fund — a major political milestone in the postwar history of European integration — which saw the continent’s presidents and prime ministers commit for the first time to the principle of jointly issued debt as a funding tool. This could pave the way for greater future EU supranational powers of taxation, altering the political economy of the union post-Brexit.
There are also major internal debates about the future of the UK. However, whereas the next few years may result in a stronger, more centralized union of EU states (despite significant disagreements between these same nations), the opposite may be true across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The short to medium-term implications of Brexit could have significantly different implications for Brussels and London
Brexit has exacerbated tensions over the UK’s unity in several ways, including putting Northern Ireland at the forefront of UK politics in a way it had not been since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to allow a new border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK has angered much of the unionist community, especially the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). This, combined with the 2019 UK general election result, which saw Northern Ireland’s nationalist parties (Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour Party) win nine Westminster seats compared to the DUP’s eight, has given rise to speculation as to how soon a referendum might be held on Irish reunification.
While Northern Ireland was relatively muted as an issue during the 2016 referendum, the prospect of Brexit leading to Scottish independence was actively debated. Now, the 2019 Westminster election result and the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) continued political strength in the Scottish legislature mean either a new independence referendum or growing tensions with London are almost inevitable, particularly given that the SNP has asked Johnson to agree to a new independence vote. His decision to reject the request to date deals with the issue in the short term; however, the SNP is playing a longer game, as it is expected to dominate May’s Scottish elections, after which this issue could come to the boil.
Taken together, this is why the short to medium-term implications of Brexit could have significantly different implications for Brussels and London. While both unions are under stress, the 2020s could yet see a tighter, increasingly federal EU, while the UK could become significantly more decentralized, or even broken up, given the growing threats to its territorial integrity.
• Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point-of-view