Four and a half years after the UK voted to leave the EU, London and Brussels have reached a free trade agreement that will frame their relationship for decades to come. It will maintain zero-tariff, quota-free trade in goods in which the EU has a large surplus. It will help alleviate the inevitable frictions that accompany the end of the transition period and will lay the groundwork for future discussions on closer cooperation.
For the EU, this arduous task has always been to limit the damage of a withdrawal from the United Kingdom which has little benefit. From this point of view, it has been a resounding success both in terms of process and strategy. For a bloc so often hampered by competing interests among its member states – and for British politicians who had relied on divisive tactics to win – it provided a lesson the power of unity.
The UK’s insistence on a close free trade agreement meant that discussions were delegated to the European Commission. EU capitals were happy to move forward as they became increasingly enraged by British indecision, its bogus ultimatums, and then a breach of trust when the British government threatened to tear parts of the Withdrawal Agreement. European governments had other priorities. Michel Barnier, the skilful chief negotiator of the EU, kept them and the European Parliament well informed and maintained their confidence.
Of course, the EU has made substantial concessions during 2020. It has renounced his requests that the European Court of Justice rule on disputes and that British state aid, the environmental and labor rules correspond to those of the EU. It will also be busy negotiating and wrangling with London for years to come – although this deal must provide for a more stable relationship than the multiple transitional agreements it has with Switzerland.
But the EU has achieved its main goals. He has maintained internal unity to a remarkable degree, even with Eurosceptic governments more supportive of the Brexit cause. He defended a smaller Member State, Ireland, who has the most to lose from leaving the UK. But every member state could lose out if the UK could undermine EU rules on state aid, the environment or labor. The integrity of the single market has been preserved. The UK has accepted constraints and binding decisions.
Brexit Britain does have your cake and eat it. The principle that access to the single market comes with obligations was essential to preserve the deterrent effect of Brexit. Political unrest in the UK supported exit from the EU political responsibility for Eurosceptics on the continent. Few are those who advocate it openly. The power asymmetry in the process is undeniable. the chaos in British ports this week, following the closure of French borders, underscored the UK’s dependence on the goodwill of others.
Brigid Laffan, professor at the European University Institute in Florence, sees the success of the EU as proof that the bloc has entered a phase of more assertive governance, bringing together its power and resources to protect its interests. The Christmas Eve deal ends a year in which the EU has mobilized to tackle a new economic crisis.
Brexit may have galvanized the EU, but it is probably an exception rather than the new rule. There are many examples of European weakness resulting from its own divisions. When another third country, Turkey, disputed sovereign waters of an EU member state – a challenge to the integrity of the EU – the EU has done little to push back because the interests of its members were not aligned. The continued efforts of the nationalist governments of Poland and Hungary to dismantle democratic norms and the rule of law are an existential threat to a union founded on fundamental values and a common legal order.
The effects of Brexit on the shaping of internal EU policies will play out in the years to come. It has already upset the balance of Atlanticist states with a liberal spirit. He forced other countries, including the Netherlands, to leave British remains for defend their own interests. He gave more influence to France and Germany.
In the end, says Catherine de Vries, a professor at Bocconi University in Milan, a lot will depend on how Britain behaves on the outside. “If the UK looks to be doing well in 10 years, it’s going to create some interesting momentum.”
Before that, however, the UK and the EU will both have to adjust to the end of frictionless trade. Even with this deal, no one is a winner.