Brexit 5: Much ado about… something?

By Simon Percelay March 7, 2020 9:26 am

Ready, set, fight! 

The declarations of the past few weeks had not made anyone very hopeful on the outcome of the post-Brexit talks – with the UK pre-emptively refusing any level playing field while the EU debated on a stricter position on regulatory alignment, many expected the two sides to come to a head at the start of the negotiations. Did the kick-off deliver on Monday 2nd March?

According to Michel Barnier’s press comments on Thursday 6th, it seems it did. The EU’s top negotiator warned of “grave differences” between the EU and the UK. At the end of the first week of the new negotiation phase, the two sides still had disagreements over the implementation of the withdrawal agreement, the scope of the difficulties by the end of the transition period on 1st January 2021, the level playing field provisions, the role of the European Court of Justice, the nature and scope of the trade deal, and the inclusion of fishing in the negotiations. In other words, each side played their role – but some suggest that this is more bluster than real talk, and that the chances of a deal by the end of the year are more likely than we would be led to think.

Costly cautiousness

On Friday 6th March, the National Audit Office (NAO) – also known as the UK’s public spending watchdog – published a report investigating the cost of EU Exit preparations. The document looks at how much government departments spent on their activities preparing for EU Exit and how they spent it. With the uncertainty surrounding the negotiations and the parliamentary fate of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, departments had to prepare for multiple scenarios, including the dreaded no-deal.

All in all, government departments spent £4.4 billion on Brexit preparations since 2016. The total pales in comparison to the UK’s divorce bill of £33 billion, but still led to unsurprising criticism from the Liberal Democrats who claimed that “billions of pounds have been thrown away in a bid to paper over the Tories’ Brexit mess”. Yet, the same people were stressing how unprepared Britain was for Brexit a year ago… you can’t win them all.

Chlorinated chicken? No way! … for now

In an ironic turn of events on Friday 6th March, British Environment Secretary George Eustice voted against what is – or rather, was – his own amendment protecting post-Brexit food standards. As a backbencher in 2019, he tabled an amendment to the Agriculture Bill to try to protect the UK’s high animal welfare and food hygiene standards by banning the sale of lower standard foods, such as chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-injected beef. As Environment Secretary in 2020, he voted against the exact same amendment, this time tabled by Labour with the hope of highlighting his inconsistency.

Why the U-turn? The government insists that its bill will retain EU legislation for existing protections on food safety, animal welfare and environmental standards – in other words, there is nothing to worry about. However, one might also argue that the government is also wary of seeing its hands tied up by Parliament, as happened throughout the previous session. A slightly more cynical view might be that the Cabinet does not want to make any legally binding commitments on food standards, at a time when the UK has not fully decided what it is willing to negotiate on in its trade talks with both the EU and the US.

The existential thrill of independence

Not even COVID-19 will break the UK’s determination to retrieve its sovereignty, it seems. On Sunday 1st March, the British Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) asked to retain membership of the Early Warning and Response System (EWRS) as part of the EU-UK future relationship deal – but the request was blocked by No 10, fearing they could later be accused by the EU of seeking more than the basic Canada deal.

The web-based system links the European Commission, government departments and key agencies such as the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECC) in order to control serious cross-border threats to health. Hence, a tool that could prove particularly useful in case a certain virus outbreak from the Chinese province of Hubei were to turn into a global pandemic

Amidst the confusion…

While the EU and UK negotiating teams get ready to play a 9 month-long game of tricks and tactics, citizens still remain in the dark. Research conducted by Karen O’Reilly, a sociology professor at Loughborough University, revealed “enormous levels of uncertainty and worry” amongst British citizens living in Spain. O’Reilly, who has been researching the British community in Spain since the 1990s, carried out more than 100 interviews on the practical and emotional impacts of Brexit. Her study reveals that the advent of free movement in 1992 means that British emigrants in Spain have led quite complex lives, with relatives and attachments spanning the two countries. Unsurprisingly, these citizens feel that their needs have not been a central part of the negotiations – but the blame lies as much with the Spanish government as with the UK. There seems to be no doubt that the drama of the Brexit process will carry on beyond the EU-UK negotiations.

 

The Whitehouse team are experts in the potential impact of Brexit, providing political consultancy and public affairs advice to a wide range of clients, not only in the United Kingdom, but also across the member states of the European Union. More information about our Brexit experience can be found here, or, if you have any questions, please contact our Chair, Chris Whitehouse, at chris.whitehouse@whitehouseconsulting.co.uk.

By Simon Percelay March 7, 2020 9:26 am

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