Brexit has been the dominant topic in recent years, but since the United Kingdom's exit from the EU at the turn of 2020/2021, relations between the EU and the island nation have been quieter - but behind the scenes things continue to bubble up.
Since the beginning of the year, the United Kingdom has no longer been part of the European single market, and a trade agreement negotiated at the last minute is currently being applied provisionally. However, the final green light from the European Parliament is still pending. This is "not a formality," said Bernd Lange, chairman of the European Parliament's International Trade Committee, at the Europa-Union Deutschland's Citizens' Dialogue last Wednesday. For example, he said, the United Kingdom's exit was selective: While the country continues to participate in certain research projects, it has dropped out of much, including the Erasmus+ program. Some regulations, such as on CO2 pricing in the energy sector, are still pending.
In the digital citizens' dialog, Annette Dittert, ARD correspondent in London and studio manager of the ARD UK office, also answered the questions of the more than 200 participants. She pointed out that small and medium-sized enterprises in particular have been hit hard by Brexit and that many are facing insolvency - a fact that even many fishermen who were previously vehement Brexit supporters are now aware of. But the government around Prime Minister Boris Johnson avoids the topic of Brexit in public. The successful vaccination campaign serves as proof to the government that leaving the EU was worthwhile. The current dispute over the Corona vaccine from the manufacturer AstraZeneca also shows the strategy of the UK government toward the EU: the EU stands there as a scapegoat because it is publicly considering export bans on the vaccine to the UK. While the UK manufacturer's vaccine is being shipped there in large numbers, AstraZeneca has severely cut supplies to the EU and failed to deliver on promises. In the U.K., however, this is hardly part of the debate - despite disastrous organization, the corporation enjoys wide recognition in the British media.
In response to questions about media plurality in the UK, Dittert expresses concern: the public service BBC no longer dares to report on Brexit because the broadcaster is intimidated by aggressive government policies. Starting in the summer, there will also be two new television stations, GB-News and UK-News, which will operate similarly to Fox News in the United States. In the UK, this leaves few media outlets that report factually and without bias. Many of them are also controlled by media giant Murdoch. Even in the run-up to the Brexit referendum, the great influence of this reporting was evident: most newspapers reported with a clear ideological focus; for example, the Daily Mail had sided with the Brexit supporters.
The United Kingdom on the brink of breakup?
For the most part, Scots have a different view of the political situation in the United Kingdom than their English neighbors, and a majority of them had already voted to remain in the EU in the Brexit referendum. The exit from the EU is now fuelling the independence movement and the incumbent head of government Nicola Sturgeon and her Scottish National Party (SNP) are far ahead in the polls. A first independence referendum in 2014 failed, but the Brexit has changed the starting position: Young Scots in particular are calling for independence and re-entry into the EU. According to Annette Dittert, the Scots are "a deeply social democratic society that finds the turbo-capitalism of the Tories in London overwhelmingly terrible and identifies more with the northern Europeans." The situation is uncertain because the British government would have to agree to Scotland leaving the United Kingdom, which Johnson vehemently opposes.
But there is also seething in the west of the country: In Northern Ireland, citizens also voted to remain in the EU. The Brexit negotiations between Brussels and London were particularly sensitive here, because the political situation on the Irish-Northern Irish border has never been completely pacified since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. In the Citizens' Dialogue, Bernd Lange explained the current regulation. This stipulates that customs declarations must be submitted and EU certifications must be complied with for goods from England, Scotland and Wales to Northern Ireland. Johnson, however, had spoken publicly of wanting to ignore this regulation. Lange complains that the British government is not complying with the agreement and that the EU is being blamed. In fact, the atmosphere is so tense that European officials were unable to come to the Belfast office for a week in February because their safety was not guaranteed.
However, the Good Friday Agreement provides that referendums on leaving the United Kingdom are possible in Northern Ireland - regardless of permission from Westminster. For the time being, therefore, a union of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland seems even more likely than Scottish independence. Asked whether the kingdom could break apart in its current form, Annette Dittert answers drastically: "This is merely a question of time."
Great Britain and the EU: an uncertain future
Bernd Lange would have liked to see a more intensive relationship than the trade agreement, such as a common foreign policy. National sovereignty in the face of powers like the U.S. and China, as well as big companies like Facebook and Amazon, is an "illusion" for such a relatively small country, he said.
While the final details of the future legal relationship have yet to be finalized, one thing is clear: Britain is striving for more national sovereignty and also wants to set international standards - without the EU. Boris Johnson does not seem to have a concrete plan for this, and the economy is already suffering from the effects of Brexit. The Corona crisis is still overshadowing the discourse, but how long that will last is uncertain. In the future, Europe will probably have to adjust to the fact that Great Britain will go its own way, which will not always please the EU in particular. So for the time being, it is up to us citizens to maintain friendly relations with our British neighbors.