Five big Brexit battles that remain three years after leaving the EU

Keir Starmer insists Brexit agreement with EU is a ‘bad deal’

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January 2023 is a month of milestones for the UK’s relationship with the European Union (EU). January 1 marked half a century since the country first became a member of the European Communities, then-Prime Minister David Cameron’s Bloomberg speech in which he declared his support for a referendum turned ten on January 23, and January 31 is the third anniversary of the UK’s withdrawal. takes a look at some of the biggest unfinished Brexit business.

Boris Johnson stormed to general election victory in 2019 with a battle cry of “get Brexit done” and armed with an “oven-ready deal”.

On Tuesday, exactly three years will have passed since the UK officially left the EU on January 31, 2020 – the first country in history to do so.

The darkest days in the intervening years have seen the advantages of Brexit Britain shine through – the UK moving more decisively than the Continent on vaccine rollout and on response to Russian aggression against Ukraine – yet there is a growing sense that the full potential of the historic move has yet to be realised.

Below, has pinpointed the five biggest challenges the Government needs to overcome in order to make a lasting success of Brexit.

Signing a trade deal with the US

The 2019 Conservative manifesto promised 80 percent of UK trade would be covered by free-trade agreements within three years.

Although the Government has closed deals with 71 countries as well as the EU according to the Department for International Trade (DIT), missing partnerships with major players mean officials put the true figure at just over 60 percent.

Yet to be reached, a bilateral agreement with Washington is essential – the US being the UK’s largest trading partner, imports and exports between the two totalling just under £235billion during the year to July 2022, 16 percent of the total.

Negotiations began with an enthusiastic Trump administration in May 2020, but have since descended into a stalemate under his successor. President Biden’s team have insisted a resolution of the Northern Ireland Protocol dispute is key to breaking the deadlock.

READ MORE: Boris warns Britain will be ‘sucked back into EU’ if Keir becomes PM

Sorting out the Northern Ireland Protocol

Testament to the importance of the matter, PM Rishi Sunak made a pledge to his US counterpart to settle the squabble with the EU over the trade border in the Irish Sea before the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in April.

An Irish backstop – the legal provision guaranteeing no checks on the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland – was a controversial issue throughout Brexit negotiations, sinking then-PM Theresa May’s withdrawal proposals three times.

Under the terms of the deal in force since 2021, a hard land border has been avoided by Northern Ireland continuing to follow EU rules for goods, VAT and state aid policy. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – along with a number of Conservative Brexiteers – have long deemed this an unacceptable breach of UK sovereignty.

Last June, the Government introduced a bill with the power to unilaterally disapply parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol if enacted, escalating tension with Brussels. The DUP has since blocked the functioning of Stormont’s powersharing executive until changes are made.

In a final bid to reach an agreement, Mr Sunak this week dispatched experienced officials Sir Tim Barrow, former British ambassador to the EU, and Cabinet secretary Simon Case into the negotiations mix – raising hopes in Westminster.

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Repairing the relationship with the EU

Despite no longer being a part of the club, the EU’s geographic proximity and collective economic might make it the UK’s single most important international counterpart.

The EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement – hailed by the EU Commission as a “solid basis for preserving our longstanding friendship and cooperation” – is by far the most substantial of all, ensuring tariff and quota-free trade worth £594.6billion during its first year.

The legislation included a stipulation that British researchers would continue to have access to EU science and innovation projects – such as the £84billion Horizon Europe programme and Euratom – but 18 months later the EU is still in the process of formalising the UK’s association.

Data from the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory last year showed just 43,000 EU citizens received visas for work, family, study or other purposes in 2021 – a fraction of pre-Brexit migration figures – going a long way in explaining the shortfall of low-skilled workers in the country, estimated by think tanks to be at 330,000 earlier this month.

Getting illegal immigration under control

However, the pivotal Brexit pledge of regaining control of the UK’s borders has been undermined by record-high levels of net overall migration.

According to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), net migration hit an estimated 504,000 in the year ending June 2022 – a staggering increase of 331,000 on the previous year.

This comes in spite of the Government’s newly introduced points-based immigration system which made skilled work visas contingent on factors such as English language proficiency, qualifications and having a job from an approved employer waiting.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman has said she wants to reduce net migration into the “tens of thousands” and has drawn particular attention to the growing problem of Channel crossings in small boats since taking office last October. The Ministry of Defence said 45,756 migrants came to the UK illegally in this way last year.

The UK’s continued membership of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) – an institution separate yet intimately linked to the EU – has long made deporting arrivals on British beaches difficult, as French police face more frequent claims of turning a blind eye to smugglers’ dinghies.

In a recent poll of readers, conducted between December 15 and 21, a near-total 95 percent of respondents were in support of withdrawing from the ECHR. The Government’s plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda were also thwarted by a last-minute intervention from the Strasbourg-based court.

Restoring political and public faith in Brexit

Approaching seven years since 52 percent of UK voters ticked Leave in the Brexit referendum, support for the project has waned. The January poll of polls summary by the National Centre for Social Research, with veteran pollster Professor John Curtis at the helm, found a record high 58.5 percent of the public thought the UK would be better off in the EU.

An Opinum poll carried out between December 14 and 16 also found one-in-three Tory voters now believed the costs of Brexit outweighed the benefits. Although much of this has been pinned on some of the persistent challenges outlined above, slumping enthusiasm from politicians has also been cited.

Although Mr Sunak’s first 100 days in office have overseen the successful passing of the EU Retained Law Bill – which will ensure all lingering EU laws applied in the UK are retired by the close of 2023 – much of the ongoing cost-of-living crisis has, at least in part, been attributed to Brexit.

During a speech last week to Chatham House, shadow foreign secretary David Lammy voiced Labour’s position of wanting to “normalise” relations with the EU if his party were in power, echoing the broader strategy of re-engaging with the Continent put forth by leader Sir Keir Starmer.

But perhaps the greatest threat to the party that saw the UK untangle from the EU in the first place comes from Reform UK – the offspring of Nigel Farage’s hardline Eurosceptic Brexit Party. Steadily creeping up towards nine percent in election polls as the voice of full-throated commitment to Brexit, the Reform UK has the potential to siphon away enough seats from the Tories to lose them the next general election.

Last Friday, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt sought to restore a sense of optimism from Bloomberg London – the venue of Mr Cameron’s referendum speech a decade prior – by assuring the country’s new long-term economic plan was “necessitated, energized and made possible” by post-Brexit freedoms.

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