1st January 2021. Our formal membership of the European Union ended exactly 11 months ago. The year’s end concludes a fractious transition period. It does not mark the end of our relationship with Europe.
This is not the belief of some stubborn ostrich with his head in the sand. It is rather the consequence of immutable geography, the nature of modern industrial production, and the realities of trade and geo-politics.
Unsurprisingly to some of us, that continuing relationship, albeit changed, is also explicit in the agreement now reached between the UK and the EU. For sane people, how could it have been otherwise? The English Channel will not, after all, be an inch wider tomorrow than it is today.
It is an unsatisfactory agreement in many respects, grossly inferior to the full membership that we have enjoyed for 47 years, although infinitely preferable to no deal at all. Future trade in goods may be free of tariffs and quotas but, far from frictionless, it will be administratively cumbersome and costly, in cash and jobs.
This, together with the absence of any agreement on services that constitute 80% of our economy, is how you engineer the 6.4% drop in our GDP that economists predict.
But those who believe that the European question is now behind us had better read the 1,246 page document that a government intent on ‘taking back control’ has pushed through Parliament in a single day this week. (The allegedly ‘undemocratic’ EU is giving its own Parliament a few weeks to study the deal.)
And as for the purported gains for our own democracy, consider that the words ‘take back control’ actually apply to Government not Parliament. In the past, EU directives had to go through Parliamentary process. Not so, now. Parliament will simply be told what the Government has already decided.
Sovereignty fetishists might note that, from Day 1 of the new order, concepts of untrammelled sovereignty will be an illusion, hedged around, as ever, by economic and political realities. As if to emphasise the point, the necessary machinery of the deal’s implementation mocks those who have themselves spent decades mocking the EU’s bureaucracy.
There is to be a Joint Partnership Council – chaired jointly by a UK Minister and an EU Commissioner – that will spend half its time in London and Brussels. There is to be a secretariat based in both capitals and no fewer than 30 committees and working groups.
The specialised committees will deal with such things as sanitary and phytosanitary measures, barriers to trade, aviation safety, social security, fisheries, energy, public procurement, law enforcement and judicial cooperation, and participation in EU programmes – even one on the functioning of the agreement itself.
Numerous arbitration tribunals – dealing with non-regression of labour and social standards, the level playing field, environmental protection and impacts on trade – will labour long and, you can bet your life, in private.
There is also provision for the UK Parliament and the European Parliament to establish a Parliamentary Partnership Assembly, and for the establishment of domestic advisory groups to involve civil society.
Eurostar trains, I predict, will continue to be busy with British and European civil servants including, hopefully, Welsh and Scottish Government officials. The BBC’s Katya Adler and her colleagues will continue to pose beneath serried EU flags outside the Berlaymont or the European Parliament to report on the latest movements on this conveyor belt to kingdom come.
But let us not to pretend that nothing has changed – far from it. Bureaucracy may be intrinsic to modern government, whatever its form, but it is business and industry and the rest of the civil society that will have to bear the costs in terms of forms to be filled, more administration to be paid for, separate regulations to be made and observed. Legitimate profits will be squeezed.
Meanwhile, the European Union can be relaxed about the deal’s apparent symmetry of rights, safe in the knowledge of the asymmetry of real economic power that favours a single market that is more than six times larger than the UK alone. In fact, the deal (along with the Withdrawal Agreement) increases that disparity, since Northern Ireland will now exist on the other side of a perforated line down the Irish Sea. “Honey, they just shrank the UK.”
We should not be dismissive of this institutional superstructure, since it is within this framework that our relationship with the EU can be rebuilt, brick by brick, as long as the political will is there.
Our government, of course, protests that “the UK is culturally, spiritually and emotionally part of Europe,” and that “the agreement provides for close and friendly cooperation with our neighbours.” Butter would not melt in its mouth. If so, one must ask why it has rejected participation in the Erasmus scheme that allowed generations of the young people of a whole continent to criss-cross that continent to learn new skills and disciplines and to experience parts of the European culture other than their own?
Is the imposition of new and restrictive road haulage rules, that will effectively prevent much touring by UK arts organisations, essential to the preservation of our prized sovereignty?
If we can still participate in the EU’s Horizon research programme, even as a more junior partner than we once were, why can we not participate in the Creative Europe scheme, even as a third country member – a category that already exists?
A new scheme, named after computing pioneer, Alan Turing, is intended to replace the Erasmus scheme, although no details are yet available – a situation that has echoes of the Shared Prosperity Fund, announced more than three years ago, and about which we still know nothing.
So what is the way forward? The government is right to say that the vocabulary of Leave and Remain should be put to one side. The deed is done. An overt campaign to rejoin will, in the immediate future, seem perverse and vain.
But that is not the same as saying that we should not do everything possible to give substance and meaning to the government’s own claim that we are ‘culturally, spiritually and emotionally part of Europe’.
To do that the Welsh and Scottish Governments must insist on deep engagement with the new partnership structures at every level. Civil society and the cultural community, too, must do all they can to keep a European sensibility alive, not in opposition to the UK Government’s global goals, but as a natural and wholly necessary part of them.
Given the habits of the last half-century, this will be the natural instinct of many people and organisations in this country. Given the necessary priorities of a post-Covid world – to ‘build back better’ – that will mean building a society that will express even more clearly European values.
Geraint Talfan Davies is a former Chair of Wales for Europe.