Five years since the British people voted to leave the European Union, the legal process that formalises the new political reality in Europe has now been completed. The European Parliament, by a vast majority, approved the deal signed last Christmas Eve between the UK and the EU. The post Brexit era is just beginning.
Going by first indications, trouble lies ahead in cross-Channel relations. The MEPs voting on the deal adopted a resolution that warned the EU to be vigilant about British actions such as on taxation and money laundering. Potential sanctions in the deal are seen as a tool to keep Britain in check.
David Sassoli, the European Parliament president, labelled the agreement “the most far-reaching the EU has ever reached with a third country”. But the brinkmanship tactics adopted by both sides in the negotiations phase has led to a bare-bones trade deal that has already given rise to serious disputes over its implementation. Now that realpolitik has taken over, the political consequences are beginning to emerge.
A wave of rioting in Northern Ireland has been blamed on the effects of Brexit customs arrangements. Urgent talks are underway in Brussels and London to find a long-lasting solution that will not endanger the Good Friday agreement that has meant decades of peace in Ireland.
Officially called the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), the deal establishes a new relationship that provides for no tariffs or quotas on goods traded between the EU and the UK.
This is far short of what many European were hoping for. There is nothing on foreign policy and defence, nor any commitment for close alignment on environmental management, health cooperation or coordination in the fight against terrorism.
Divorce agreements may bring relief but they are never a cause for celebration. Despite the positive comments of the protagonists in the Brexit saga, the road ahead for both the EU and the UK is uphill.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, when addressing the European Parliament, called Brexit a “failure of the European Union”. He argued: “This is a divorce, it’s a warning. Why did 52 per cent of the British people vote against Europe?”
The reasons are many and, today, EU politicians need to learn the lessons of recent history. Barnier is right when he argues that “the social anger and tension which existed in many regions in the UK also exist in many regions in the EU”.
Look-at-me political celebrities need to move on from being seen and heard on social media and understand the challenges that ordinary Europeans experience in their daily lives.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was being realistic when she acknowledged that several issues will arise from time to time as the new European realities begin to take shape. She sensibly argues: “We need to focus on joint solutions. Unilateral decisions will get us nowhere.”
One can only hope that no faux pas, like the one the EU made when it prohibited the export of Astra Zeneca vaccines to the UK, is repeated.
The Maltese government must ratchet up negotiations with the UK to maximise the cooperation between our two countries. The foreign minister needs to go beyond being seen in photo opportunities with UK officials and keep the public informed on progress achieved in bilateral agreements on trade, education, tourism and other areas of mutual interest.
The Brexit deal has been signed, sealed and delivered. The thing that now matters most is a seamless implementation that benefits the peoples of both the UK and the EU.
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