Brexit was done as 2021 dawned but talks drag on

Next year could see conflagration in Northern Ireland alongside trade war recrimination in Brussels and London

Anti-Brexit protesters wave UK, Ireland and European Union flags outside London's Parliament. Getty Images
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When the final divorce papers came through on January 1, ending 47 years of marriage between the UK and the European Union, there were fireworks over Downing Street in London.

The mood was not quite the Handel-fuelled spectacular that many Brexiteers had dreamed of. Something more in keeping with a pandemic that saw 588 dying on the same day was the dominant preoccupation.

Some see this as another chapter on Britain’s journey as a fading power, while, for others, it was the starting gun for a glorious new era, free from European Union shackles.

But if divorce was deeply unpleasant, being single has proven an unnerving experience.

For those 52 per cent who voted for Brexit, the implementation on January 1 of the Trade and Co-operation Arrangement meant they were no longer subject to Brussels’ rules and Britain could control immigration, customs tariffs and strike trade deals.

It had been a titanic struggle to get to that point, costing two prime ministers their jobs and putting a dent into Britain’s parliamentary democracy, as friends and enemies looked on respectively aghast and delighted.

“Get Brexit done” had been Boris Johnson's appealing general election slogan in 2019. It had worked – but Brexit is still not yet completed.

A Border Communities against Brexit protestor stands against a makeshift border customs hut as she takes part in a demonstration in Newry, Northern Ireland. Getty Images

To get a deal done, the prime minister had ditched the Conservatives' enduring friendship with Northern Ireland’s predominantly Protestant unionist people and agreed for the EU border to be placed in the Irish Sea. This had avoided a hard border between Ulster and the Irish Republic with the potential to undo three decades of post-Troubles peace.

But what was called the Northern Ireland Protocol has gone from being a marginal issue into something that could blow up the entire agreement and lead to a trade war.

“The diplomatic mood is negative,” said Professor Federico Fabbrini, director of the Brexit Institute in Dublin. “Trust between the parties has been damaged by a lot of things that have happened and that will take a while to rebuild. This is a divorce and as we know couples do not talk for a while after that happens.”

That silence is no more empathic than between Paris and London with an estrangement not seen since Napoleonic times. French warships have been launched over Britain’s reluctance to grant Frenchmen fishing licences. The simmering sore of small boat English Channel crossings, with the tragedy of 27 immigrants drowned in early December, has intensified the bickering. That plays too into attempts to resolve the Protocol. A truculent Paris veto could scupper wider talks.

Brazenly, Brexiteers have been able to blame much of its impact on the pandemic. The lack of lorry drivers that meant there was no fuel in petrol stations, the shortages in supermarkets and building materials, and the dwindling numbers of Eastern European catering staff have all been obscured by Covid-19.

Mr Johnson seized on the issue, suggesting fewer migrants will mean more jobs and increased pay for a better trained British workforce. He might be right. But it might take considerable time to find out.

Meanwhile, Britain’s adversaries have been looking on in glee. “Losing an influential member like the UK has affected European Union foreign and defence policy in many negative ways,” said Prof Fabbrini. “Brexit has disrupted things rather than created new opportunities.”

The Northern Ireland Protocol is subject to an unresolved set of new negotiations on implementation. There are bitter complaints among Ulster businessmen over the huge administrative costs they are now burdened with to get goods from mainland Britain under new customs rules.

When prosaic institutions like the National Trust, which looks after Britain’s ancient castles and woodlands, complain bitterly something is clearly remiss. Imported grass seeds for its immaculate lawns that used to cost £200 a large bag now accumulate a £650 cost, including bureaucratic fees.

The University of Ulster estimates £850 million in additional administration costs due to the Protocol.

Brexit has disrupted things rather than created new opportunities
Professor Federico Fabbrini, Brexit Institute director

It has also been unpleasant for the loyal British Unionist population. English oak saplings bought to plant in celebration of the Queen’s jubilee next year were denied importation on the grounds there were “contaminated” with British soil. That, says Ian Paisley, a Democratic Unionist Party MP, was “red rag to a bull”.

“To say British soil is a contamination in a part of the United Kingdom where people see themselves as British is utter stupidity.”

Such episodes have stoked unrest in the loyalist community, which was turning ugly until the death of the Duke of Edinburgh in June made the rioters step down in respect. But resentment still simmers while Britain attempts to renegotiate the Protocol, demanding an end to onerous customs checks and removal of the EU’s European Court of Justice as arbiter of trade disputes.

If Unionists were divided over whether to leave or remain, they are now united in anger over their treatment. “They're making the whole of Northern Ireland, a proxy zone for the EU fight and we're not getting the best of both worlds,” said Mr Paisley. “There's less checks being done on Russia’s border with Europe than there is with Northern Ireland”.

Patience is limited over the “disproportionate” regulations approach that could potentially lead to ugly scenes next year. “It’s affecting our sense of being cut off from the rest of the UK and that's a very dangerous place to be,” said Mr Paisley. “We already had some signals with burning of public transport utilities in loyalist areas. That’s an indication of how angry people are and if that spreads to inter-communal tension or cross-border violence then you really do have a problem, Houston.”

Like many unionists, he is calling for London to implement Article 16 to force the EU to concede.

But, potentially, the trade war that will follow could have grim repercussions challenging the unity of the entire UK, starting with a “hard border” in Ireland.

“If the situation were to unravel that might speed up the process towards Irish unification,” said Prof Fabbrini. “It’s unclear to me whether Whitehall has really thought this through to the very end because ironically in Dublin the government supports the Protocol because it sees this as a way to avoid the discussion about unification. So, Article 16 is not a solution to the problem as it would open up new problems. That's why it would be ill-advised.”

There are contrasting views on how, in the coming decade, Brexit may prove a benefit for Britain. While financial services have not been addressed in the agreement, the City of London has lost ground but, potentially free from Brussels’ legislation, could thrive to become the major global financial hub.

If the Protocol is resolved there is a view that Northern Ireland could become a “near offshore” hub where office space is significantly cheaper than London or New York in a country that has a well-educated workforce.

It’s clearly in everyone’s interests to resolve the Protocol but with high stakes politics at play the chance of an opportunity lost remains, that could result in conflagration. Even without Covid-19, next year will prove a troubling one for Brexit.

Updated: December 14, 2021, 1:14 PM