Quarterly Concerns

Jan 06, 2021

A Daunting Agenda for Brexit Britain

The United Kingdom finally has its Brexit deal but the real challenges lie ahead, both at home and abroad.

A map of northern Europe with Great Britain "sailing" away
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2020 may not have been the “fantastic year” for the United Kingdom promised by Boris Johnson last January. Yet, in a year dominated by the global pandemic and topped and tailed by the departure of the UK from the European Union and the end of the transition period, he at least had the consolation of a Brexit deal. As the Twitter feed of the Conservative party put it, “Brexit Done. Deal Done.”

So far, so good. A deal—any deal—avoids much of the disruption and diplomatic fallout that a collapse of the negotiations would have provoked. Yet Brexit is far from over—indeed arguably the real Brexit challenges still await us.

The deal, along with the accompanying agreements, ensures that Brexit debates will rumble on. The Northern Ireland protocol ensures that Stormont must give “consent” to the agreement ever four years—a recipe for bitter and divisive debates. As for the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) itself, there is plenty of scope for disputes both in terms of implementation (which the intricate committee system it brings in to being is intended to facilitate) and in the event that there is a dispute about relative standards, which can quickly escalate via the imposition of unilateral sanctions. Meanwhile, the agreement on fisheries, which almost derailed the negotiations, is due to be revisited in five and a half years. And the whole agreement is up for review in five years.

So, while neither side in the negotiations explicitly held out Switzerland as a potential model for the UK, what has emerged is a system necessitating the kind of permanent negotiation with which the Swiss are all too familiar.

A Crowded Domestic Agenda

Then of course there is the fact that for many of those who voted to leave the EU, Brexit was as much about what came after as it was about the decision to leave itself. Brexit, in other words, was a means to an end as much as an end in itself. Which means that, ultimately, Brexit will be judged not in the light of the TCA, but in terms of what is achieved within the UK now that control has indeed been taken back.

This means a crowded and ambitious domestic agenda that involves, in part, ensuring that policies are put in place in those areas where the EU formerly played a significant role, including immigration, agriculture, fisheries, and regional development funding. The lattermost is closely related to what ministers have identified as their priority post-Brexit—“levelling up” the country and boosting the prosperity of “left behind” places.

This would have been challenging enough under normal circumstances—the UK is Europe’s most regionally unequal major economy. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and a Brexit deal that will have a significant impact on the UK economy, it becomes harder still, not least as early indications are that the pandemic will have the hardest impact on poorer regions.

The combination of securing recovery from both the public health and economic impacts of COVID-19 and attempting to deliver on the promises made about post-Brexit Britain will provide a daunting agenda for the British government for the length of this parliamentary term and beyond.

The External Dimension

What, then, of foreign policy? Given the size of the task confronting the government domestically, there will be limited bandwidth to spare for external relations. However, there was always an external dimension to Brexit. The term “global Britain” was coined in part to reassure those—at home and abroad—who feared that leaving the European Union was a precursor to the UK turning in on itself. And while the term has largely fallen out of use under the current government, there has arguably been more sustained attention paid to foreign policy than at any time since the referendum.

The Integrated Review of foreign policy, defense, security, and international development is due to be completed in 2021. The government has already revealed a number of key features of its approach to foreign policy, ranging from an “Indo-Pacific tilt” to staunch defense of human rights and the rule of law. One immediate implication of the latter has been a more confrontational stance towards China, one that has seen the government create a route for British overseas nationals in Hong Kong to gain British citizenship and limits placed on the role of Huawei in building the UK’s 5G network.

At the same time, the UK’s hyperactivity in the trade arena, while partly at least an attempt to illustrate to a domestic audience the benefits of Brexit, is also seen as a way to bolster liberal principles after years of creeping protectionism. On climate change, too, the UK sees itself as a global leader.

And this year promises to be a big one in terms of British foreign policy ambitions. As well as hosting the COP26 summit, the UK will take over the presidency of the G7 as well as the chair of the United Nations Security Council.

British diplomats have been actively securing support for their climate change ambitions, and the incoming Biden administration will prove a useful ally in this undertaking. Indeed, given the nature of the foreign policy agenda laid out, it seems likely that the UK and US will work closely together in a number of areas albeit despite a possible lack of warmth in terms of the personal relationship between Boris Johnson and Joe Biden.

Going Bilateral

As for Europe, the government has made it clear that it sees any cooperation in terms of bilateral links with member states rather than collaboration with the EU per se. We can expect continued attempts to mobilize the E3 (the UK, France, and Germany) on issues such as the Iranian nuclear deal. 

However, on climate in particular, this approach may not prove sustainable. We will have to wait and see whether the apparent allergy of this government to be seen to be working with the EU—apparent in its reluctance to join the EU’s joint procurement program for tackling COVID-19—persists. What is clear is that the achievement of many of the British government’s stated foreign policy objectives would be far easier if addressed in collaboration with EU partners. 

Anand Menon is professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs at King’s College London and director of the UK in a Changing Europe research project.