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Did You Have A Merry Brexmas?

06 Jan 2021 - 09:51

The build-up to Brexit has at times felt like opening the daily door on an underwhelming four and a half year advent calendar. When the big day finally arrived, did everyone get what they wanted for Brexmas?

Spare a moment, if only as a gesture of post-festive goodwill, to think of the diplomats and officials who didn’t spend the lead-up to Christmas shopping online but instead spent it stuck in negotiations as they sought to conclude a UK-EU agreement before the 31st December.

Working harder than Santa’s reindeers and elves, and also expected to perform miracles, they did indeed succeed where many thought they would not. The rush meant the inevitable mistakes – after making a list and checking it twice, someone still managed to copy and paste references to 1990s internet browser Netscape into the final agreement. However, the deal they wrapped up on Christmas Eve became an unlikely member of the list of 2020’s most sought-after Christmas presents.

The full title – Trade and Cooperation Agreement Between the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community, of the One Part, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, of the Other Part – is not exactly one many would be delighted to read on the front of a book they unwrap on Christmas morning.

Nevertheless, seeing those words and unwrapping each of its seven parts and its many annexes and protocols was just what some had hoped they’d get for Christmas. It was certainly better than finding no deal under the Christmas tree.

Whether or not the UK was able to ‘take back control’ depends on your interpretation of the freedom the UK now has to diverge from EU laws and regulations

But who got what they wanted? Of course, it all depends on what Santa was asked for.

For the EU, a much sough-after gift was to have one agreement – with an over-arching structure headed by the Joint Partnership Council – into which everything was wrapped.

Boris Johnson’s letter to Santa, delivered in a big festively coloured red bus, asked for four things: control of the UK’s borders; taking back control (i.e. sovereignty); not paying into the EU; and lots of fish. Did Boris Johnson get to have his Christmas cake and eat it?

On borders it’s clear he got what he asked for. Freedom of movement (Santa excepted, one would assume) has ended and the UK has even withdrawn from the Erasmus programme. But this is at the cost of the UK compromising on its own borders through agreeing to a customs and regulatory border down the Irish sea separating Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

Whether or not the UK was able to ‘take back control’ depends on your interpretation of the freedom the UK now has to diverge from EU laws and regulations. In theory the agreement gives the UK the right to diverge from rules and regulations that British Eurosceptics have long argued were not only an affront to British sovereignty but held Britain’s economy back (‘shackled to a corpse’ was how one Eurosceptic once described the UK’s membership). It looks like the UK now finds itself wrapped up in festive red tape with a plethora of legal, bureaucratic and diplomatic procedures shackling the UK to the EU in ways Eurosceptics, once they notice them, could find as tasteful as soggy Brussels sprouts.

No wonder fisherman have been left feeling they’re the Brexmas turkey

When it comes to money, not having to pay into the EU’s budget creates a financial bonus for the UK. But as always with Christmas, no matter how many gifts you receive the overall cost of Christmas always seem to cost you more financially. And on financial services, a core part of the UK economy, the UK is far from pleased. Even Johnson admitted that on financial services the agreement ‘perhaps does not go as far as we would like.’1 That’s going to make it difficult for the Prime Minister to achieve his New Year’s Resolution to ‘level up’ the UK’s regional economic inequalities. Future Christmases could be much more frugal if Brexit, as estimated, takes around 6.4% off the UK’s GDP over the next decade.2

Finally, there’s fish. Despite many promises to secure more British fish for British fishermen, the situation facing the UK’s fishing industry has not radically changed. No wonder fisherman have been left feeling they’re the Brexmas turkey who, in less than the spirit of the season of good will, have had their feet cut off, innards ripped out, an onion stuffed inside them and then bunged into an oven until they’re burnt. They were sacrificed because as many anticipated, while the issue of fishing carries much emotional appeal the industry itself represents too small a part of the UK economy on which to risk the wider relationship.

This is not to say the EU has had a great Brexmas. Because Brexit is for life and not just for Christmas, a member of the family will now be missing from Christmas lunch. Britain might have had a reputation for starting arguments over the dinner table, but its absence doesn’t guarantee peace and goodwill between the remaining EU family members. And despite hopes on both the British and EU sides that this agreement will settle the UK’s ‘European question,’ the need for ongoing negotiations and adaptations to the agreement and wider relationship mean in future it could be Brexmas every day.



Tim Oliver
Senior Lecturer at Loughborough University London