December 11, 2020

State of the Union - Week 50 - Brexit: three central questions still divide the UK and the EU

After more than four years of (at times tense) negotiations between the EU and the UK, there is now less than 20 days until the transition period ends. Brexit is a sheer reality, but the two sides are making little progress in reaching a deal that will characterise the future EU-UK relationship.

On the evening of Wednesday 10th, Boris Johnson went to have dinner with Commision President Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels. The dinner consisted of various fish dishes - a canny irony given that fishing rights comprise a contentious policy area currently stoking division between the two parties.

The meeting did not move the parties any closer, but a joint statement was made following the meeting claiming that the two parties are both pushing for an agreement on Sunday 13th. If a deal is to be agreed upon by Sunday, there are three key areas that need to be resolved beforehand, each of which has been a proverbial gordian knot ever since negotiations began.

Three crucial conflict areas in the agreement

Firstly, there’s fishing. The main disagreement here pertains to fishermen’s access to the waters between the UK and the continent. What scale of quota will European-registered fishing vessels be allotted, and under what trade conditions will the UK fishing industry be able to sell its products to European consumers and businesses? The UK’s agenda is clearly to limit European quotas while being bound by as few restrictions as possible on their fishing exports. For the EU, it's precisely the other way around. European fishermen are dependent on access to UK waters, and the European fishing industry is better off without being able to export to the UK market. 

Secondly, there’s arguments about a ‘level playing field’. This remains a sticking point that has been difficult since the beginning. The EU demands that frictionless or very favourable access to the EU Single Market entails the UK signing up for regulatory alignment. This would entail the UK implementing EU rules pertaining to enterprises, products, environmental policies and services that prevent unfair competition. This will effectively force the UK parliament to implement EU regulations in various policy areas. This is a sensitive issue for the UK Government because the reclaiming of sovereignty was one of the central rallying points in the Leave campaign in 2016.

Thirdly, there’s the issue of trade agreement governance. A future free trade agreement is still a contentious notion in the negotiations. Throughout the withdrawal period a set of independent arbitration boards has sought to find solutions to major disputes between the UK and the EU. If an alleged breach concerned EU law it was then referred to the European Court of Justice. 

The EU has proposed that this should be the case for any governance deal on a future agreement to ensure a standardised interpretation of the rules within the single market and the countries that have access to it. The UK has rejected this proposal multiple times, arguing that an agreement should respect the autonomy of the EU’s and UK’s legal systems. This was yet another central focus of the Leave campaign. The debate cuts to the core of UK Brexiteers’ concerns about national sovereignty in the interpretation of law. 

These three issues have divided the two parties since negotiations began. Why? Firstly, fishing has a poignant symbolic value for the UK and the EU member states. Patriotism, national sovereignty and claims based on perceived historical rights are at stake. This goes for questions about a level playing field and about future governance too. A central tenet of the Brexit ‘promise’ to UK citizens concerns securing the sovereignty of the UK parliament in passing legislation without taking Brussels into account and without scrutiny from the European Court of Justice. The fishing waters debacle is a relatively simple matter of measurable territory, meaning that a one-side victory is unviable. With the latter two issues it may, however, be easier to develop a compromise around the technicalities. 


Andreas Høstgaard Poulsen

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