The elevation of David Frost to Cabinet, and him largely replacing Michael Gove as the UK Government’s coordinator of all things Brexit, understandably generated considerable debate. Jill Rutter penned a piece for UK in a Changing Europe about what we do and do not know about the UK Government’s new machinery, and Brigid Fowler cast a critical eye over the parliamentary accountability headaches Frost’s appointment causes, not least because his membership of the House of Lords prevents scrutiny of his work through oral Parliamentary Questions in the House of Commons. More political takes on what Frost’s elevation means, and what its consequences might be, have been written by Rafael Behr, Nick Cohen and Mij Rahman.
But these questions of Brexit coordination, leadership and accountability are not unique to the UK side. The EU side faces them too.
Two of the crucial ingredients that gave the EU side coherence over the past four years are now no more.
The first change is procedural – when Brexit was about the two sides agreeing a text (first the Withdrawal Agreement and NI Protocol, then the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA)) that gave UK-EU relations a framework, a structure, a timetable (even if deadlines slipped), and an end goal – a text or not. Every development in matters Brexit could be fitted into that framework. Now with the texts agreed everything becomes more amorphous.
The second issue is personnel – after 4 long years masterfully facing up the Brexit negotiations for the EU, Michel Barnier is now moving on. The Task Force for Relations with the United Kingdom (UKTF) will cease at the end of February, to be replaced by a new Service for the EU-UK Agreements (UKS). The UKTF structure was well known, and Clara Martinez Alberola’s role as Barnier’s Deputy well understood – at the time of writing how the UKS will be structured and staffed is not known.
Perhaps more significantly, where does the political responsibility for Brexit issues reside on the EU side now?
European Commission Vice President for Institutional Relations Maroš Šefčovič is joint chair of the EU-UK Partnership Council established by the TCA, and is also joint chair of the Joint Committee for the implementation of the NI Protocol. Šefčovič, in my experience, is an optimistic, capable and pragmatic politician, an ideal person to dampen down the tensions that will likely arise in UK-EU relations. But his role as a Vice President of the Commission means he cannot be the broker between the Commission, Parliament and Member States that Barnier was (and Barnier’s success was remarkable). Šefčovič also has other tasks in the Commission, and does he really want to be “Mr Brexit” on behalf of the EU?
Politicians further up the hierarchy – Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel – cannot and probably should not take more responsibility here. Von der Leyen lost trust UK side with the error on Article 16 and vaccines, and Michel has shown little interest in the issue. Plus I am not sure that either the President of the European Commission or President of the European Council should be concerning themselves with the 90% of Brexit issues that are highly technical in nature.
There is also a headache in the European Parliament. Guy Verhofstadt is not a universally appreciated politician, but both his political positions and communication were clear as Chair of the EP’s Brexit Steering Group until early 2020. The successor formation – the UK Coordination Group – is instead chaired by David McAllister, a politician so achingly loyal to the European People’s Party, and so opaque in his communication, that means it remains hard to know what the Parliament really wants for the future of relations with the UK. Now Provisional Application of the TCA has been extended until the end of April, and with EP scrutiny of the TCA due to begin in earnest in March, we might begin to learn a little more soon.
EU side, the list of impending political headaches is long, even if Brexit lacks the visceral emotiveness it does UK side.
Von der Leyen’s faux pas on Article 16 led to a discussion about how to avoid such an error in future, and whether a kind of “parliamentary lock” on its use ought to somehow be formulated – something that would smooth relations between the EP and the Commission on this issue. Tony Connelly has written about the proposed mechanism for this – routed via the staff of the Irish member of the European Commission McGuinness – that is supposed to prevent such errors in future.
Aside from Article 16, the general approach towards the headaches thrown up by the interface between the NI Protocol and the TCA also remain unanswered EU side. While Irish Foreign Minister has been keen to call for “pragmatism” with regard to the NI Protocol, there seems to be little consensus on what that means in practice. To UK ears that sounds like an acceptance of turning a blind eye to the unresolved issues (this is the sort of thing Gove has repeatedly urged), while EU side it sounds more like the need to find ways to make sure what was agreed in the TCA is actually implemented on the ground.
More specifically, grace periods for Northern Ireland (on – for example – customs declarations for parcels) are coming to an end 1 April, and the UK is supposed to be able to perform full checks on everything arriving at Dover from 1 July, but as this discussion shows there is a lot of concern as to whether that will actually happen on time. If it does not, what is the overall EU line in response?
More widely there are other Brexit issues that are drawing some public attention, UK side. Would a whole-UK – EU veterinary agreement be a solution for some of the problems in Northern Ireland? The Alliance Party in Northern Ireland has been pushing this idea strongly, but there is no coherent response from the EU on this one so far.
Elton John and other performers have been pushing hard to allow UK musicians and their crews to tour the EU visa free, and now the UK is considering trying to sort bilateral agreements with individual countries – but should the EU tolerate this? Likewise on costs for work visas, the UK looks to be trying to divide the EU. In both cases the EU ought to argue for reciprocal and general means to alleviate the problems – be ready to find a way to allow visa free travel for UK musicians in the EU, if the UK also allows EU musicians to tour there visa free.
Likewise with regard to Terry Reintke’s effort to find a way for Scotland and Wales to rejoin Erasmus+, the EU could have been a little more clever in its response – von der Leyen’s response to Reintke is not wrong, but is also not politically savvy either – the EU should stand ready to do all it can, within the framework of Erasmus+, to allow as many regions and universities to participate, as a manifestation of the EU’s soft power.
Looking longer term, what is the EU’s overall aim for its relations with the UK? To show that the EU will survive and thrive whatever the UK does? To alleviate the practical headaches the TCA has thrown up? To keep the door open for the UK to rejoin, medium term? Questions of that nature are fought over daily in UK politics, but the extent of public thinking and debate about these points, EU side, is considerably more constrained.
At the moment we are in some sort of transition to the new UK-EU political relationship. In its emotive, opaque and unaccountable way, the UK Government is nevertheless inching its way towards the creation of some new apparatus. The EU meanwhile no longer has the structure or framework it did have, but it too needs coordination, leadership and accountability – and is likely to need them soon, due to the series of UK-EU political challenges already looming into view on the horizon.