And so it ended, the United Kingdom’s decades-old membership of what is now the European Union, not with a bang but with a whimper. Despite four years of acrimony and debate, of negotiations and confrontations, at midnight Brussels’ time the Conservative Party government of Boris Johnson pulled off the remarkable stunt of heralding in the final part of the UK’s torturous divorce settlement with the EU, and an overall deal that is substantially poorer than the one that was offered to his more inept but less duplicitous predecessor Theresa May back in 2017. With the new year upon us most of the initial post-transition relations between Britain and Europe will now take place under the aegis 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 December’s Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The latter of which still waits for legal revision and approval by the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union, with the possibility of a few hiccups along the way.
But all this is only the beginning of a new era of UK-EU relations and not the end as some Brexiteers are claiming. In truth the British have negotiated themselves into an odd sort of regulatory and mercantile purgatory in terms of their junior partnership arrangements with the EU. Formally very much outside of the European Union, in reality very much within the shadow of the bloc’s economic ambit, with all the rule-taking such a position demands. The prediction by some experts that the UK will eventually be sucked back into an “ever closer union” with Europe via a Trojan Horse of regulated trade seems more likely than not. Unless of course the Johnsonian strain of chauvinist populism remains the norm in London or gains even more ground at the ballot box. Making Brussels the continued bogeyman of Westminster politics and the scapegoat for all future ills for decades to come. In which case there may be no UK left to be absorbed back into the EU.
But for now all that politicking lies in the weeks, months and years ahead. The immediate task is the final ratification of the provisional EU–UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement by the European institutions not to mention dozens of ancillary agreements and protocols yet to be ironed out. And, of course, we are waiting to see the impact of a now less onerous but still no less present customs border in the Irish Sea. Likely making 2021 another bumper year for Brexit (or Brexited) watchers.