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Current Affairs

After a whole month of being out of the EU, has anything really changed?

With COVID in control of the headlines, it feels as though Brexit has been swept under the rug


3rd February 2021 20:25 GMT

It seems strange to say that we’ve officially been out of Europe for over a month now, and I only really thought about it this week, as my shiny new blue passport was delivered. Disappointing amount of patriotism in the back pages… Especially given the current lockdown and no real shortage of news it doesn’t seem that surprising, but I still feel like an EU citizen. The lack of international travel will have helped this too, with no need to apply for any visas since I’m not going anywhere anytime soon. When the deal was signed in late December last year, both parties knew there was still a lot left to be resolved, but with COVID and the vaccine still at the front of our minds, especially in the EU, where vaccine rollout has been less than ideal, perhaps it is that even they have forgotten about Brexit. Finally, our prayers in 2016 have been answered: no more Brexit in the news.


But in the background the Brexit cogs continue to whir, and there is no place where they whir loader than in Northern Ireland. Negotiators knew it would be an issue, and it has been. The importance of avoiding a harsh Irish border has bound NI to many EU regulations, which have caused a multitude of trading issues between them and the rest of the UK. These range from the necessity for rabies injections, despite that the UK has been rabies-free for some time, the need for health certificates when selling seafood, and the strange ban on the import of soil, which unsurprisingly has caused issues for those trying to sell fresh plants to NI.


The UK has demanded a two-year extension to grace periods for goods going between Britain and NI, a move which the Rep. of Ireland has supported, so they can discuss these issues and look to find a solution. The current grace period for supermarkets is three months, but M&S have already had shortages in many of their Northern Irish stores. However, the call for such a grace period has already sparked debate between Unionists and Nationalists, the latter of which are happy to see a greater divide between their home nation and Britain. But Unionists are in control in the Northern Irish Assembly, even if they are still 6 seats off a majority, and with a vote on an Irish sea border coming in four years, three years after the next election, it will be interesting to see who is in control when the vote is called.  


Unsurprisingly, trade between the EU and UK has fallen, with freight volumes down 38% in late January, compared with the same time last year. Drivers now require additional paperwork to cross the channel between Britain and France, plus the more current negative COVID test. But both the EU and UK don’t see this as a long-term change, expecting levels to return to what they were pre-Brexit, before March of this year. “Transport demand is slowly recovering but still sluggish - our French British border crossing monitoring, based on real-time visibility data by Sixfold, indicates significant volume drop compared to the same weeks in January 2020,” said Stephan Sieber, CEO of Transporeon, Europe’s largest supply chain and logistics technology firm.


However, Britain have been looking elsewhere to find trade. Last year, they added a further 14 trade deals, alongside the trade deal with the 27 EU members, showing clear ambition. Brexiteers often talked of a more ‘global Britain’, after departure from the EU, and it seems that Liz Truss, the trade minister, is trying to make that happen. But this is still short of the 40 deals covering 70 countries that Britain benefited from when in the EU.  But the work of Truss should not go unnoticed. She was praised for getting the Mexico and Canada trade deals done, and many saw the Japan deal as better than the EU equivalent. However, the Biden Administration will be less eager to strike a deal than Trump was, as he looks for freer access into the health market and farm products.


More recently, the UK has made a formal request to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The partnership includes 11 countries: Japan, Canada, Australia, Vietnam, New Zealand, Singapore, Mexico, Peru, Brunei, Chile and Malaysia. For members, 95% of tariffs are removed for trade between them, and unlike the EU, there is no single market or imposed laws. Britain’s entry into the partnership seems relatively possible, with several members, including the chair, Japan, welcoming the application. Its effect, however, would be disappointing, with current trade deals already in place with many of its members. It is still a step in the right direction though.


It seems that Brexit is more than just a new passport colour after all, and the current government seem to be doing more than meets the eye. Although their current COVID situation is dire, the vaccine rollout has been strong, especially when compared to our neighbours. More does need to be done, but the approach has been a direct one, tackling what many thought would be an impossible task. Looking back to the no-deal preparations in early-to-mid-December, it feels as though we’ve come a long way.

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