On Christmas Eve, the United Kingdom and the European Union finally signed off on their free trade agreement. For Boris Johnson and his supporters, this milestone represents “taking back control of our laws, borders, money, trade and fisheries… restoring our national sovereignty”. At 11pm on December 31, we will “regain the ability to wield powers… taking up these tools to deliver the changes that people yearn for”.
However, one of the biggest concerns for people resisting Brexit was the lack of a well-published national strategy for after the United Kingdom had left the European Union. Time, resources and effort were overwhelmingly spent on “getting Brexit done” rather than interrogating what our goals would be in a post-EU Britain. Some might argue that attention can now turn to identifying what these goals will be, but that does not negate the fact that the UK is emerging from the Brexit aftermath without a clearly defined strategy. Boris Johnson and his ministers might well have ideas in mind – and be busy crafting them for public release. Nonetheless, with less than a week to go until we have officially left the European Union, outlining our goals and future course of action is of utmost urgency.
In an attempt to understand what these goals might be, I scoured the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement to identify the five areas considered important by the government that will be worth keeping an eye on over the next few years. What I found is not ground-breaking and largely fits with what the Conservatives outlined in their 2019 election manifesto. Yet given that their manifesto was defined before the coronavirus pandemic severely altered our socio-economic situation, an in-depth revision of what needs to be addressed and what could be achievable for Britain in the current climate should happen.
① REASSERTING OURSELVES AS A LIBERAL FREE TRADING NATION
Even though being in the European Union did not prevent the UK from being a liberal free trading nation, we now have the ability to create our own agreements and terms with non-EU countries. Therefore, one can expect the government to look toward forging new free trade agreements, building on the 30 that have already been signed or “rolled over” during the Brexit negotiation period. However, the important factor to look out for is whether these agreements go further than what we enjoyed previously as an EU country, or whether they are simply continuing the provisions we already had. Currently, 29 of the 30 trade deals are continuations of current terms, with only the agreement with Japan breaking new ground. Thus, the government will certainly want to sign new agreements with non-EU countries as they look to mitigate the inevitable loss in income from leaving the European Union. Yet this loss of income will be exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, meaning Britain will have to capitalise fast on its competitive advantages where it can, making trade negotiations a high priority in 2021.
② REASSERTING OURSELVES AS A FORCE FOR GOOD IN THE WORLD
This statement largely depends on what you define as a “force for good in the world”, which means different priorities and beliefs for different people and interest groups. Many would argue that we weren’t exactly a “force for bad in the world” while part of the European Union, therefore the government will need to expand on this statement at some point. At present, however, it seemingly refers to the UK’s position in the world and the power we have. The central argument for restoring our national sovereignty by leaving the EU was to have sole control over our time and resources. In theory, this means choosing what we consider important.
In a world ravaged by coronavirus, there will be plenty to do to help developing countries through their national and regional crises, as well as pressing climate and governance concerns. Post-EU Britain will want to be at the forefront of the international response, but whether this is achievable remains to be seen. Coronavirus has been deeply damaging to our own economy and society; its ramifications will be felt for decades to come. Thus, UK citizens will be calling for domestic support and will have little appetite for expensive – and possibly ineffective – goodwill missions abroad. Balancing the need to remain present – and even lead – the international restructuring process against public opinion and support at home will be difficult.
③ REBUILDING OUR FISHING FLEET
Brexit negotiations pushed fish into an important and contentious topic, despite being worth just 0.12% of Britain’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2019. Given the amount of prominence and importance this issue has received, the government will want to keep up appearances and improve our position in this industry. As is clearly defined in the TCA Summary, the government wants to rebuild our fishing fleet, increasing quotas in the next few years. This will be supported by investment in our fishing communities across the whole UK, including support for Scottish fishermen. The explicit reference to Scottish fishermen is interesting. Fish has the potential to become an even bigger issue when Scottish independence is thrust into the spotlight during the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections. Nicola Sturgeon has already tweeted her dismay at the fishing provisions in the UK-EU Agreement, which will likely form part of her overarching argument that Brexit is happening against Scotland’s will. A vote for independence is thus a vote to chart Scotland’s own future as an independent, European nation. Anyone looking to move on from fish in 2021 will be seriously disappointed. Whether the government can make good on their fishing pledge though is worth keeping an eye on over the next few years.
④ INTRODUCING OUR OWN MODERN SUBSIDY SYSTEM TO SUPPORT BUSINESSES
Along with fish, state aid was another contentious issue during Brexit negotiations. It refers to the use of state resources to provide assistance to organisations that gives them an advantage over others. This can distort competition and trade, which is why countries seek to define acceptable state aid in free trade agreements. So far, the UK government has refused to reveal its specific state aid plans, which is why it became such a sticking point for Europe, who did not want to have a neighbour looking to undercut them in certain sectors. However, with coronavirus ravaging our economy, state aid will be extremely important over the next decade as the government intervenes to protect jobs and to support new and emerging industries. Thus, the introduction of Britain’s subsidy system should be high priority in 2021. Previous articles have hinted that the system will focus on emerging tech, levelling up the North of England with the South, and dealing with the fall out of the coronavirus pandemic. How effective this subsidy system is will be important for the UK’s economic recovery from Brexit and coronavirus.
⑤ MAKE THE UK A SCIENCE AND RESEARCH SUPERPOWER
Back in June, the UK government published its plan for strengthening science, research and innovation. They believe this sector will play a critical role in the UK’s future and the global recovery from coronavirus. The plan reiterated the government’s manifesto commitment to increase UK investment in research and development (R&D) to 2.4% of GDP by 2027 and to increase public funding for R&D to £22bn a year by 2024-25. Along with funding, the plan also contained provisions that aims to attract highly skilled scientists and researchers from around the world to come to the UK. Now the government must turn this plan into reality. The coronavirus pandemic has shown that the UK possesses immense wealth and expertise in this industry. However, the government has not been great at applying this scientific advantage well in its attempt to manage the virus. Thus, utilising our scientists more effectively is paramount for demonstrating the strengths of this industry for our socio-economic recovery. It is time the government finally made true on its statement that it was “following the science”.
DO THESE PRIORITIES ALIGN WITH PUBLIC OPINION?
While signing non-EU free trade agreements, being a force for good in the world, improving our fishing industry, introducing our own state aid programme and making the UK a science and research superpower are clear priorities for the government, whether this matches up with the public’s priorities remains to be seen. Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic have had a profound effect on what people hold as important. It is unclear what the lasting effects of these crises will be but interrogating them will be integral to understanding public opinion in the next few years. Therefore, an important question to ask ourselves is: who do we want Britain to be?