Four and a half troubled years after the Brexit referendum, it seems proper to mark the passing into law of the UK-EU Trade and Co-operation Agreement.
First, Boris Johnson has done what he said he’d do, at least as far as he and his supporters are now able to say, which is what counts: he can forever boast he took the UK out of the EU. Second, he and the EU managed to avoid “no deal”. That comes as a relief — though as Michael Heseltine has remarked, the same kind of relief with which a condemned man hears his execution has been commuted to life.
Even for the layman, without studying the fine print, it is hard to see this deal as the end of the issues and Britain’s woes. Apart from obvious gaps — no clarity on the status of Britain’s service industry or the arbitration mechanism for disputes; disappointment for the fishing industry; a return to red tape and border checks, disingenuously passed over by the Tory government as “bumps in the road” — it is plain the ambitious yet rushed treaty is not a settlement but must open the next, likely permanent, period of negotiation, after the kind of arrangement Switzerland has with the EU.
Will these negotiations be easy and cheap, an exercise between friends, or fraught and costly, a slow poison to Britain’s international relations and domestic politics? Will the treaty undergo a thousand stitch-ups till there is little recognisable difference between then and now?
Four and a half years ago I wrote that “Britain is in Europe whether it likes it or not; it’s called history and geography. There is no way out of either of them.”
Who is sure now that anything has changed?
Paul Whelan, Umhlanga
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