The Brief – Letter from the UK

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter. [EPA-EFE/ANDY RAIN]

Two days after the UK left the EU’s single market, England was placed into its third national lockdown on 3 January, joining Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who had already imposed their own restrictions.

With people confined to their homes once again across the whole of the UK, the consequences of Brexit have only really been felt by the freight and haulage industries, who reported major delays and vehicles being turned away for having the wrong paperwork.

The fact that the UK has moved faster than the EU in starting its mass vaccination programme has bought ministers some goodwill, even if border delays may start to result in shortages of some products in the supermarket aisles.

Ocado and Marks&Spencer have both warned customers that they will temporarily have to drop dozens of products, from chocolate fudge pudding and sweet and sour chicken to Percy Pig sweets, while problems have also been reported at Sainsbury’s and Tesco, two of the UK’s biggest retailers.

In truth, and this should come as no surprise to anyone following the Brexit saga, businesses were ill-prepared for the end of the transition period because of the confusion over whether there would be a deal of any kind, let alone for a 1200-page trade treaty on which the ink is still wet.

But politically, there is a sense of finality.

The Christmas Eve trade deal – which only covers tariff- and quota-free trade, and has effectively spelt the end of ‘frictionless’ trade with the EU – was still greeted by a sense of public relief, after months of delays, brinkmanship and threats of ‘no deal’.

In the meantime, the Labour opposition has become the Brexit acceptance party. Two weeks after whipping his MPs to back Johnson’s deal, Labour leader Keir Starmer abandoned his commitment to free movement of people in the European Union, made when he was contesting the party leadership, in an interview on Sunday.

He also ruled out an extensive renegotiation of the trade agreement should Labour win the next election.

“We’ve just had four years of negotiation. We’ve arrived at a treaty and now we’ve got to make that treaty work,” Starmer said. In other words, Brexit is settled. Boris Johnson really did “Get Brexit Done”.

That is not to say that there are not campaigners for the UK to rejoin the bloc. But right now, it is – much like Nigel Farage and UKIP were in the 1990s – a fringe pursuit.

While Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon stated last week that “we didn’t want to leave and we hope to join you again soon as an equal partner”, the parties south of Hadrian’s Wall have to be far more circumspect. Even the Liberal Democrats, still the most pro–EU party in the UK, have watered down their plans to campaign for EU membership.

“A lot of the disruption that Brexit brings is going to be hidden by the pandemic,” said Professor Anand Menon, director of the UK in a Changing Europe academic thinktank.

That is good news for a government that has, for the most part, performed poorly during the pandemic.

The Roundup

Before you browse further, have a look at our latest edition of the Global Europe Brief with a look ahead what’s coming up in EU foreign policy this year.

Most European leaders condemned last week’s storming of the US Capitol by pro-Trump activists. Meanwhile, Europe’s far-right leaders, which so far have sympathised with Trump, are balancing between reproof and self-defence.

Members of the European Parliament have a renewed duty to address the thorny issue of regulating social media content, in the wake of last week’s Capitol Hill riots, the chair of the Parliament’s Internal Market committee told EURACTIV.

The West has underestimated China’s rise, and the centre of gravity has switched from the Atlantic to the Pacific, where Europe has no role, Greece’s former Foreign Affairs Minister Nikos Kotzias, one of Europe’s most experienced China analysts, warned in an exclusive interview.

The UK has been quicker than the European Union in approving COVID-19 vaccines but it also took greater risks with pharma firms by accepting all liability in case of complications, French MEP Pascal Canfin told EURACTIVin an interview.

Respect for the EU charter of fundamental rights could be used to withhold EU money going to projects that trample over democracy or discriminate on the basis of gender or race, an EU official has said.

Positive “tipping points” in the uptake of electric vehicles and the decarbonisation of electricity generation could spark a global transition to a climate-neutral economy, scientists say, providing fresh hope in the fight against global warming.

Kazakhstan’s ruling party Nur Otan looks set to sweep the parliamentary election held on Sunday, according to preliminary results, which show only two other parties passing the threshold to be represented in the next Mazhlis, the lower house of parliament.

Look out for…

  • European Parliament’s ENVI Committee grills European Commission’s chief vaccine negotiator 
  • European Space Conference in Brussels

Views are the author’s

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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