And so the UK’s decades of membership in what is now the European Union ended, not with a bang, but with a whimper. Despite four years of sharpness and debate, negotiation and confrontation, at midnight Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party government accomplished the remarkable stunt of announcing the last part of Britain’s agonizing divorce deal with the EU and an overall significant deal poorer than those of his less capable, but less double predecessor Theresa May was offered in 2017. As of the new year, most of the initial UK-Europe relations after the transition will now take place under the auspices of last January’s agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community and the trade and cooperation agreement between the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in December. The latter is still awaiting legal revision and approval by the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union, with the possibility of some hiccups along the way.
However, all of this is only the beginning of a new era in UK-EU relations and not the end as some Brexiters claim. The truth is that the British have negotiated their way into a strange kind of regulatory and commercial purgatory over their junior partnership agreements with the EU. Formally very outside the European Union, in reality very much in the shadow of the bloc’s economic environment, with all the rules that such a position requires. The prediction of some experts that the UK will at some point be drawn back into an “ever closer union” with Europe via a Trojan horse of regulated trade seems more than unlikely. Unless, of course, the Johnson variety of chauvinist populism remains the norm in London or gains even more ground at the ballot box. Make Brussels the continued idiot of Westminster politics and the scapegoat for all future diseases for decades to come. In this case, there may not be a UK left to rejoin the EU.
But for now, all of this policy is in the weeks, months and years to come. The immediate task is the final ratification by the European institutions of the EU-UK Interim Trade and Cooperation Agreement, not to mention dozen of ancillary agreements and protocols that have yet to be ironed out. And of course we are waiting to see the effects of a now less burdensome, but still no less existing, customs border in the Irish Sea. Probably another rush year for Brexit observers (or Brexited observers) in 2021.