After a no deal scare, Brexit is finally over
It's finally over. On Christmas Eve, when exhaustion from long haggling was about to set in, the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared, "We have taken back control of our laws and our destiny". His counterpart, the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen announced, "It's time to leave Brexit behind". These two near simultaneous announcements came following a free-trade agreement that took almost a year to finalise.
The deal makes Britain a third country like any other outside the European Union, but grants tariff and quota-free access to the USD 668 billion single market. But, claiming sovereignty has a cost and Britain had to agree to a mechanism, with arbitration and possible tariffs for violations that would keep its regulations and subsidies roughly in line with those of Brussels, to prevent unfair competition. The deal will require inspection of goods to prevent smuggling, especially of live animals. The deal also covers many crucial matters like visas, health insurance, and air, rail and road travel. It treats Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, as within the EU customs area to prevent the need for a hard border on the island, but requires some checks on goods going from Britain to Northern Ireland.
Only a week before, both sides hinted that a deal is very much unlikely. So, how did it become possible to strike a compromise at the last moment? Critics argue that it was intentional to avoid intense scrutiny due to people's preoccupation with Christmas festivities leaving very little time for parliamentary approval of the deal. Another theory is Joe Biden's election as US president effectively killed off prospect of a no deal as he has repeatedly said that anything that jeopardises the Good Friday agreement risking a return to borders between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic would be unwelcome. But, many observers believe that the sudden emergence of a more contagious strain of Covid-19 was the real game changer. They say the chaos caused by an unexpected and unprecedented 48-hour travel ban from UK to Europe following the news of the new Covid strain made everyone realise how catastrophic a no deal Brexit will be.
Britain has rarely seen such a fast deteriorating situation. And, it came just before Christmas, which the Conservative government was desperate to save from ruination. But, on December 21, it became clear that it was unavoidable. Only three days earlier during PM's Question Time, Prime Minister Boris Johnson ruled out any further tightening of health rules during the five days of "shorter" and "smaller" Christmas. His U-turn was so sharp and sudden that rail stations in London had to witness some of the worst overcrowding amidst peoples' desperation to escape de-facto lockdown in London. The news of the new strain of the virus rang alarm bells all over the world and within hours, the UK became a nation in isolation. Besides European neighbours, dozens of other countries including Canada, Australia, India and Hong Kong slapped travel bans from UK.
The travel bans caused such a nightmarish situation that the businesses started to scream over a likely shortage of essential supplies, perishable food items in particular. To help restock UK supermarket shelves, 80 tonnes of fruit and vegetables had to be flown in. Hundreds of people were left stranded on both sides of the channel and were angry about the prospect of not being able to unite with their family for the biggest festival of the year.
Despite EU's call to lift restrictions on UK citizens with a reminder that they have the right to free movement until December 31, the French at the end of the 48-hour period had agreed to ease restrictions. Netherlands and other neighbours followed suit, but, only for EU nationals and residents subject to corona negative tests. Freights movement also resumed, but the backlog created during the travel ban continued throughout the Christmas period. The British government had to draft in the army to help in testing drivers stuck on the M20 and at Manston airport which was turned into an emergency lorry park. Furious truck drivers at one stage scuffled with police and sounded their horns in protest.
German newspaper Die Welt wrote, "the continental blockade could well be preparing the British for what Brexit might actually mean". It even speculated that in the event of a no deal transition to Brexit, corona chaos would merge seamlessly into Brexit chaos. Few will then be able or willing to tell which bottleneck and which new emergency measure is due to what. The New York Times was even more scathing and blamed PM Johnson for the chaos. Describing Britain a "Plague Island" led by a man who thinks "optimism is a substitute for hard truths and proper management"—which is currently getting a good lesson in "what 'reclaiming sovereignty' means".
UK companies started reporting on goods shortages and border disruption even before the new variant of coronavirus and French travel ban had emerged. The Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply said UK firms experienced the worst shipping delays since 1992 in early December due to a combination of pre-Brexit stockpiling, Christmas demand and backlogs in global shipping caused by the pandemic.
Certainly, the last-minute compromise has come as a big relief as Britain was already struggling to cope with the huge surge in coronavirus infections and deaths. Britain's government-backed independent forecaster, the Office for Budget Responsibility, projects Brexit will shave 4 percent off GDP in the medium term. It may take a while to find out all the implications of the agreement. But, the new variant of Covid-19 has given some lessons as to what isolation within a continent really means.
Kamal Ahmed is a freelance journalist based in London.