Brexit is done but the rows have only just begun

Convulsions of past weeks suggest forces unleashed by 2016 vote still shape continent’s affairs

European leaders speak of "this post-Brexit world" in which we're living. British prime minister Boris Johnson crows that he "got Brexit done". Little wonder, after the four years of pain it took to extricate the United Kingdom from the European Union, that everyone is keen to consign the trauma to the past tense.

Yet if the political convulsions of the past two weeks tell us anything, it is that the forces unleashed by that referendum of 2016 still shape the continent’s affairs in important ways. And it could continue like that for years, perhaps even decades.

Optimists in Dublin and Brussels hoped that, with the EU-UK deal struck on Christmas Eve and the conclusion on January 1st of the UK's "transition" to non-member status, work could begin on repairing strained relationships and building a new modus vivendi.

In this sunny scenario, the fulfilment of the Conservative party's long-nursed ambition of a hard Brexit would allow its obsession with Europe to fade and for the two sides to forge a working relationship founded on common interests. After all, Britain and the EU must still co-operate closely on many neighbourhood issues, and on major global questions, such as climate change or Russia policy, they will still find themselves on the same side of the table.


The cross-channel chill was hardly improved by Macron's claim that the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine was "quasi-ineffective" for people over 65

The most optimistic Remainers allow themselves to hope that within a generation the British public might yet be persuaded to vote to rejoin.

But this week offered a glimpse of an alternative scenario: one of rivalry and mutual suspicion, constant bickering and petty one-upmanship. In this scenario, divorce does not help the two sides get along better but causes them to drift farther apart.

The standoff over AstraZeneca's vaccine distribution plans in the EU was ostensibly a contractual row between the Anglo-Swedish pharma giant and the European Commission, which reacted angrily to the firm's sudden slashing of its promised supply for February and March.

The commission found it intolerable that AstraZeneca would dramatically scale back its deliveries to the EU while maintaining its supply schedule for the UK. Notwithstanding diverging views on the contractual rights and wrongs, the commission's anger was well-founded and no doubt shared in every EU capital. But this was also a proxy battle over Brexit.

For Johnson's government, eager for any retrospective validation of the UK's decision to leave, a successful mass vaccination programme has been an invaluable political boost at a time when the government, facing complaints over the exit terms both from hard-hit companies and spurned unionists in Belfast, badly needed something that looked like a win.

For its part, the commission, already bruised by criticism of the comparatively slow vaccine rollout on the continent, has every incentive to show Europeans that leaving comes at a heavy cost. It's an incentive felt even more acutely in major European capitals, where leaders like French president Emmanuel Macron face intense challenges from the Eurosceptic far right.

This is already beginning to look like a pattern. Relations between London and Brussels were already under strain as a result of the British government’s attempt to downgrade the status of the EU’s ambassador to London after the transition ended – an act of spite that hardly suggested Downing Street was eager to turn a new leaf.

And the cross-channel chill was hardly improved by Macron’s claim that the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine was “quasi-ineffective” for people over 65 (in fact the reason for some regulators’ caution is that the vaccine’s trial included too few over-65s to draw conclusions on efficacy).

Ideological zeal

Meanwhile, the idea that the Tory party's radical right and its allies in the right-wing press will retire their avid Euroscepticism looks like wishful thinking. As Anand Menon, professor of European Politics at Kings College London, has pointed out, Johnson won election in 2019 by putting together a Brexiteer coalition founded on values more than on economic policy.

Whereas debates over tax policy or welfare might fracture parts of that coalition, rows with the EU will unite its disparate parts in approval. "If the government's approach to the EU is thoughtful, pragmatic and constructive, this is not going to get the patriotic juices of Workington Man flowing," said the former justice secretary David Gauke.

None of this is preordained. The ideological zeal of the most ardent Brexiteers could wash through the British political system within a few years, and a change of party – or, more likely, of generations – at leadership level might transform the atmosphere. An international crisis could force the EU and the UK together.

Ireland, caught in the middle, has a lot riding on good relations between the two sides. But it would be naive to think the strains of the past four years – the past 30 years? – can be forgotten overnight. Brexit is done. The terms of trade are agreed. But the task of working out that future relationship has only begun.