Chapter 5: Road to the renegotiation

The EU is full of specialist, career trade negotiators. In contrast to the UK’s have-a-go zeroes – a combination of the clueless and the outright fantasist, best summed up by David Davis’ empty-handed appearance at the negotiating table – the EU has a deep knowledge of how trade deals work. It has negotiated dozens and is constantly negotiating more. The legal text of the Brexit deal, put together against the clock and barely understood by the UK side, mostly originates as a series of cut-and-pastes from previous EU trade deals.

Most importantly, the EU knows that a deal rarely stays ‘done’, fixed for all time, and that structuring the rhythm of renegotiation can be every bit as important as the initial negotiation. Its trade experts will have known that they were being asked to write a set of absurdities into the deal at the insistence of the hard-Brexit UK government of the day, and the text is carefully constructed to allow those absurdities to unravel without damaging the rest of the arrangements, and give a future government (one not ideologically committed to Brexit, or at least not to the hardest form of Brexit) plenty of leeway to scrap the worst sections.

So while the UK government was asleep at the switch, the EU helpfully laid out a path in the Brexit deal for those who want to take it. It allows a ‘break clause’, of sorts, towards a much closer relationship from the mid-2020s onwards. While this would not mean immediately rejoining the EU, we believe it could be a key moment and, if we get the wind in our sails, a huge step towards rejoining by the end of the decade.

A reckoning delayed

As we consider the next few years – this book is being written in 2021 – one point is inescapable: we are yet to experience the vast majority of the effects of Brexit.

Brexit since the referendum has been a story of delay, indecision, scattered attempts to cushion the impact, transition periods, implementation periods, grace periods, temporary exceptions to new rules, and further delays. Brexit is ‘going OK’ only and precisely to the extent that it still has not happened yet.

The end of the transition period on 31 December 2020 was the clearest moment so far when a large number of new rules (though far from all of them) came into effect. But it arrived almost a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, nine months since the first UK lockdown and only days before the third (!) national lockdown on 6 January 2021.

People are, for the most part, not travelling at the moment, or travelling as little as they can. Far from looking for opportunities to work around Europe, those who can are still working from home. The dramatic (though highly necessary) loss of freedoms during the pandemic has extensively disguised the loss of European freedoms as a result of Brexit.

It is a similar story in the economy, where the drastic fall in GDP as a result of coronavirus has masked the expected fall from Brexit. So far the most noticeable effect attributable to Brexit directly has been on online orders from the EU and parcels sent to the EU, which are tied up in customs paperwork and can take months. The cause of trade problems, shortages and other issues has been difficult to prove, with the media often pinning the blame on catch-all phrases such as “caused by the effects of Covid and Brexit”.

As the Institute for Government report ‘The End of the Brexit Transition Period’ points out: “Where disruption has occurred, it has not always been easy to distinguish whether it has been caused by Brexit or Covid. Covid has also delayed some of the most obvious impacts of the Brexit deal – at least until lockdowns ease and borders re-open.”

Let’s assume, and unfortunately this may be optimistic, that by the end of 2021 we have seen the last wave of the pandemic (at least in Britain). This means we begin 2022 with a population once more ready to travel, hoping to live, work and study across Europe in much the same quantities as we did before our lives were frozen by the pandemic in March 2020. There is also an expectation that supply-chain pressures that were being blamed on Covid should disappear at this point, if Covid was causing the problem (it wasn’t).

This is the moment when, outside the relatively narrow field of those of us who pay attention to Brexit day-to-day, and outside the few sectors that have already been worst affected, the effects of Brexit are likely to become clear to the population at large. Almost six years since the referendum, Brexit will finally become real.

We can expect its popularity, already not high (see chapter 3) to fall further. Pro-Brexit passions are beginning to wane as the Brexiters flee the scene of the crime, avoiding interest groups they once claimed to represent such as fishing and searching for new culture-war campaigns to grasp onto. What we are left with is the consequences – the bare reality of what, thanks to Brexit, people will come to discover is possible and not possible as a British passport holder in 2022 and beyond.

Grounded by Brexit

Holidays under Brexit will be less convenient, less spontaneous, more burdened with paperwork and planning. We can expect to hear a lot in the summer of 2022 about sky-high mobile phone roaming charges, the fact that all (yes, all) UK pet passports are no longer valid in the EU, and much else besides.

Beyond holidays, living in the EU for a sustained period will become harder: UK citizens can only spend 90 days out of any 180 in the Schengen travel area. Longer stays will require a visa application, and immigration comes under the normal rules of the country you are moving to – a huge difference from the previous situation with free movement, when British citizens could travel to any European country and stay for as long as they wanted.

Work trips are the most severely curtailed. Business trips are only allowed for a strictly limited set of purposes, and the rules are incredibly complicated.

The government’s web page on the rules for business travellers explains that you “may need a visa, work permit or other documentation” if you are “carrying out contracts to provide a service to a client in another country in which your employer has no presence” or “providing services in another country as a self-employed person”.

And by the way, the rules for visas and work permits are different in each EU country, so you need to check their own information. (Good luck if your trip involves multiple countries.) And by the way, you might need to pay social security contributions in each country. And by the way, if you’re taking ‘goods’ into the EU – which crucially includes all “equipment you need for work like laptops, cameras or sound equipment” – you need a carnet, a form of ‘passport’ for the equipment that costs £300 plus VAT and you must pay a security deposit “equal to the highest rate of duty and taxes applicable to the goods in any of the countries in the itinerary, and transit if applicable”. If the complicated rules governing the carnet scheme are breached, this deposit will be confiscated and paid to the country you were visiting.

If you’re planning to take something with you to an EU country and sell it once you’re there, you’d really be a lot better off just… not doing that. (It counts as an export.)

Touring musicians and other performers, who often plan to travel between many countries and may do just one or two gigs in each, are some of the first people to notice how badly this will affect them. In fact the EU even made an offer for special visas for performers, but the UK government turned it down – because it did not want to give the same deal to EU performers visiting Britain. “It is usually in our agreements with third countries, that [work] visas are not required for musicians. We tried to include it, but the UK said no,” an EU source close to the negotiations told the Independent. The government denied this at first, blaming Brussels, before acknowledging that it did turn down the deal after all.

The National Theatre has already cancelled an EU tour, saying that the Brexit deal makes it “financially unviable” because of the costs of getting work permits for the whole cast and crew for every country that would be visited. If the National Theatre cannot find a way then it is unlikely that smaller productions will be able to either.

And it is wider than performing arts. As the Institute for Government’s report notes, “While most of the focus of the Brexit impact has been at the border, one of the key criticisms of the TCA [the Brexit deal] was the limited provisions made for services… accountants, lawyers, consultants and architects who are all working from home have not yet had to worry about what work they may or may not be permitted to carry out in the EU”. This will cause increasing frustration as the years pass.

In the run up to the renegotiation, we need to do two things. Firstly, we need to try to ensure Brexit’s effects are pinned squarely on Brexit, not either coronavirus or the pro-Brexit media’s catchphrase in case of emergency, “new EU rules”. There are no new EU rules, just the deal our government signed: we need to raise awareness that Brexit and Brexit alone is the source of this pain.

And second, we need a different government to be sitting on the UK side of the negotiating table.