Sliding into a tough 2021

With Covid gridlock in Kent, chaotic borders arrived earlier than expected, although stockpiling ahead of the end of the transition was already causing queues and a glimpse into the UK’s difficult post-Brexit future, writes Kirsty Hughes, our colleague and friend.

One thing is clear: four and a half years after the Brexit vote, the UK is sliding almost entirely unprepared out of the EU’s customs union and single market and into a world of harder, more bureaucratised and economically damaging borders. All this at the same time as a third, yet more deadly, wave of Covid-19 looms with much of the UK in lockdown as the new year arrives.

Yet despite the chaos, the Conservatives vote share in recent polls is holding up remarkably well, even while Labour has retrieved some of its vote share since the December 2019 election. Just as with the bedrock and substantial support for Trump in the US, the Tories’ brand of populism, for now, is still working for most of its voters. Whether that will remain so into 2021 is one key question.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, elections to Holyrood are due in just over four months and a major SNP victory is on the cards according to current polls (albeit the Holyrood inquiry into the Salmond affair is due to report by March and could dent Nicola Sturgeon’s apparently impregnable popularity). The Welsh government was also quick last week to say it was considering a legal challenge to the attack on devolved powers in the internal market bill – an approach the Scottish government would surely join.

Covid, post-Brexit, constitutional divides, it’s not clear there will be much time for ‘global’ Britain as the UK slides into an unpredictable but very difficult new year.

The Future EU-UK Relationship

As we peer into the uncertainty of 2021, it is however certain that the EU and UK will need to keep talking to each other across a range of issues. Whether that’s managing short term measures in the context of a no deal Brexit or managing the bedding in of a new free trade deal, the UK will not be striding off into its global future leaving the EU behind. There will be much to deal with and discuss.

Even with a deal, it’s clear there will be plenty of frictions to manage at Britain-EU borders, including at the Britain-Northern Ireland border. Most of those frictions will be here to stay – and indeed in the case of the Northern Ireland border likely to get worse as ‘grace periods’ come to an end. But some will need practical solutions and easing – and more talks to do so. The costs and challenges of a harder border will impact on different businesses and organisations differently and adjustments will be swifter or slower, harder or easier depending on sector and organisation. There will be no quick fixes either in domestic policy or in EU-UK relations.

The CBI has said it wants the UK government, in 2021, to talk to the EU on much better services access to the EU market. This is wishful thinking. The EU has many other, higher priority issues on its agenda and will not be any more open, after a deal, to cherry-picking of its single market than it was before. The UK services sector is going to be badly hit by Brexit – and the UK government may perhaps best help businesses and other groups negotiating their way through such limited access as they can gain, and under what conditions, member state by member state.

EU-UK Foreign Policy Cooperation?

There is much more openness in the EU to building a serious foreign and security policy relationship. But this may not fit with Boris Johnson’s Global Britain pretensions. Johnson chose not to include foreign policy in the EU-UK negotiations and is likely to go for a more ad hoc foreign policy that aims to show the UK engaging around the world in a range of ways.

That is not entirely unfeasible: the UK is still on the UN security council, significant in NATO, a fairly large economy.

But the UK’s reputation is in tatters in the EU and beyond, shredded both by the Brexit decision and by the UK’s chaotic politics of the last four and a half years, its influence much reduced. Foreign policy for a medium-sized country needs to be built on strong alliances and a degree of trust. But trust has been lost by the UK government as it played fast and loose with international law this autumn, threatening to break the Withdrawal Agreement it had only just signed up to in the Internal Market Bill. The offensive clauses came out of the bill but trust will not be so easily restored.

Johnson’s future foreign policy may be built more on posturing and ideology than serious interests or strategy but the UK, for now, does not look likely to suddenly have very different interests to the EU’s. Johnson, in his failed bid to talk to Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron in the last few weeks of Brexit talks, has also shown how keen he is to be seen to be on the stage with the European big players. But Brexiter ideology will doubtless preclude any serious structured foreign policy cooperation with the EU.

That raises questions for both the UK and EU. It is unclear how the UK will handle its bilateral relations with the EU’s many smaller and medium-sized member states – many of whom, from the Baltics to central and eastern Europe, have valued the UK’s cooperation in the past. And smaller EU member states are already concerned that if the UK just talks to France and Germany, they may end up having to channel their concerns via the Franco-German duo – not an acceptable or sustainable approach within the EU.

Even to discuss future UK foreign policy relations with EU member states assumes that UK-EU relations improve from their present very low level. Yet, after the last damaging Brexit years, the UK is still observed with caution from across the EU – seen as unpredictable, irrational and unreliable. When the costs of Brexit hit home in 2021, will Johnson and his rickety cabinet start to sound like more serious politicians in their dealings with European countries and the EU or will the lure of blaming the EU or the French or the Germans for every border problem and bit of economic damage be irresistible?

Brexiter ideology has been built on a combination of labelling the EU as the eternal enemy and scapegoat and imagining a quasi-imperial future for ‘global’ Britain. The UK returning to being a serious, respected, professional international player under the current government looks like quite a stretch – in terms of competence, ideology and the domestic politics of keeping Tory voters on board.

As a result, many in the EU are, in part, wondering whether and when a more serious government – and a more serious politics – might return in the UK. And some too, particularly in the European Parliament, are considering how to maintain relations and interaction with the wider UK public – only too aware of how many in the UK, including especially younger people, are pro-EU and were and are opposed to Brexit. At the same time, there is a reluctance to consider, even looking forward a decade, that the UK might rejoin the EU within that time-frame; the Brexit years have been too bruising for that.

Constitutional Dilemmas

Amidst this self-imposed political and economic damage, the UK’s constitutional strains are not going to disappear. Seventeen polls since June have shown majority support for independence in Scotland. With Scottish elections in early May, the stand-off over whether Edinburgh and London can agree to a second independence referendum is set to intensify. The Covid crisis looks set to be used as part of the excuse by both the Conservative government and Labour opposition not to agree that an SNP majority at Holyrood in May would give a mandate for another vote.

There has already been much debate in the SNP and wider independence movement about what a ‘Plan B’ might look like if and when a second independence referendum is refused. Issues such as whether Holyrood might already have the power to call an advisory referendum or whether the initial basis of the union of England and Scotland in 1707 might give Scotland the right to unilaterally end the union come up in the debate.

Yet, in the end, Scottish independence would need London and Edinburgh to sit down together and discuss how to separate. And any prospect of an independent Scotland in the EU without its independence accepted and recognised by the rest of the UK currently looks slight. At the same time, allowing London a permanent veto over another Scottish independence vote, if the SNP has a mandate and polls continue to show majority support for independence, is surely untenable too. How these political dynamics unfold in 2021 alongside post-Brexit and Covid impacts is an open question.

An Unsettled Future

The growing chaos and widespread incompetence and cronyism that surrounds the UK government as the year end approaches makes it hard to predict where UK politics may go in 2021. It’s still four years to the next general election but amidst Brexit and Covid damage, and constitutional strains, UK politics could become more unstable fairly rapidly. There may be a scenario where, after a difficult few months, the UK settles into a thin Brexit trade deal, starts to emerge from the Covid crisis as vaccination increases across the most vulnerable groups and a slightly less shambolic and less off balance UK emerges. But, as of late December 2020, it doesn’t look like the most probable scenario. The UK’s politics have been splintered, undermined and up-ended by Brexit, and that looks likely to continue into the coming year and beyond.

First published by the Federal Trust on 21 December and slightly updated on 24 December