Op-Ed: Britain and Europe: The Moment of Truth

David Jessop (Caribbeanintellignce.com)

Very soon, possibly by the time that this column is read, the European Union and Britain will have decided on the nature of their post-Brexit relationship.

As this is being written, two outstanding issues are said to be blocking a free trade agreement: the number of fish and for how long the EU27’s fishermen may take them from UK waters, and fair competition in relation to the state aid provided by the EU to its member states, for example in relation to post COVID recovery.

Although it may be possible to develop mechanisms to address both questions, they remain contentious because they relate to a fundamental ideological divergence in the ways in which the EU27 and Britain’s Conservative government see their futures.

The EU wants to do everything possible to maintain its coherence and stability as a unified bloc and its role as a global economic power, while its member states do not want to lose the strategic advantage they have achieved as a borderless grouping of 448 million people. The European Commission, therefore, argues that any nation leaving cannot expect to have the same benefits as member states that have ceded elements of their sovereignty, often at continuing political cost.

In contrast, Britain, a market of 67 million people, says it wishes to reassert its sovereignty and independence. It wants to set its own rules as a stand-alone economy but believes it should retain full market access to the EU27 through a unique treaty.

What happens next is uncertain. Any agreement must be completed between now and Jan. 1, 2021, the date the UK formally leaves the EU. Even if the negotiators can agree, lengthy and complex texts will need to be signed off by the EU’s member states, then debated and voted on in the European and British Parliaments.

In Britain, however, the issues will remain politically, economically and practically fraught.

Brexit, whether hard or soft, will cause substantial short to medium-term economic damage to the UK economy. The British government’s own late 2018 analysis indicates that a “no deal” departure would reduce UK GDP by 7.6 percent after 15 years, while even a free trade agreement if achieved, is forecast to see a 4.9 percent decline. A more recent analysis by some banks suggests, when taken with the economic impact of COVID-19, a significantly greater economic decline is possible.

Without an agreement, Brexit is expected to see much of what the UK has established over the past forty years with its EU partners disrupted as the web of arrangements relating to common regulations, documentation, food standards, security, scientific exchange, scholarships, migration and much more come to an end.

Notwithstanding the bravado with which Mr. Johnson declared that Britain would ‘prosper mightily’ on its own if it must trade with the EU and others on high-tariff World Trade Organization terms, both sides know that if the talks collapse, the UK will have little option other than to conclude eventually some sort of trade agreement. This is likely to be much less favorable than the comprehensive arrangement now on offer.

Realists in government also know that most of the UK electorate who voted in June 2016 to leave the EU, did not do so on the basis that there would be no agreement on trade, that they would be worse off, or that the concerns of those parts of the UK that want to remain in the EU would be set aside.

For the Caribbean, the immediate consequences of all of this will be slight. Most CARIFORUM nations have now ratified the 2019 UK-CARIFORUM Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA). This largely mirrors the EU-CARIFORUM EPA and will ensure that trade in goods and services will continue largely as at present with both the EU27 and a separated UK.

In the longer term, however, the separation of the UK from the EU begs other questions: specifically, what type or relationship the region wants with the EU27, and why most Caribbean nations other than the Dominican Republic and Cuba have made little effort to significantly deepen ties with European states that have a reason to care about the region?

Despite France and the Netherlands being present in the region, much of the Anglophone Caribbean’s European focus remains on Britain and British politics: so much so that one is hard pressed to find more than a few Caribbean diplomats, Foreign Ministers, academics, or anyone else who understand developments in the EU, or business opportunities in key member states.

Bilateral relations between the Caribbean and the UK will of course remain close and helpful. They will continue to be underpinned by language, similar institutions, the Anglophone Caribbean’s large diaspora in the UK, and a media skewed towards the anglosphere, but there will also be an increasingly divergent interpretation of shared history.

In the coming years, the global perception of the respective roles and influence of the EU27 and a detached UK are certain to change.

In early phone calls to European leaders, President-elect Biden indicated that he would seek to rebuild US relations with the EU27 that his predecessor has done so much to damage. A committed trans-Atlanticist, Mr. Biden is expected to focus on multilateralism, common concerns and values, unified responses to challenges from climate change to Russia, and on enhanced trade. One suggestion is that this may lead to a new geopolitical understanding on issues from defense to China and with it, more than a simple healing of the transatlantic rift.

The outcome for the UK is less clear. Its U.S. relationship remains close on a wide range of issues including mutually supportive security arrangements, but an early bilateral trade deal with Britain is unlikely to be high on Washington’s agenda. Mr. Biden is also known to be concerned about the UK’s diminished influence with its neighbors’ post-Brexit and the implications for peace in Ireland.

Brexit, whether hard or soft, suggests that the Caribbean should give greater weight to relations with France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain as regionally engaged partners.

The EU also needs to do much more. It must demonstrate its foreign policy heft and improve communications in ways that end the narrow Caribbean view that it is solely a development assistance partner that cares about democratic values and the rule of law.

Over time, and bluntly put, the UK-Caribbean relationship will require redefinition and the question addressed as to whether it should cease to be seen as the region’s principal European interlocutor.

David Jessop

Editor’s note: David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at david.jessop@caribbean-council.org.

The views and opinions expressed in the View from Europe are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Caribbean Council.