The powers that be within the EU are somewhat reminiscent of miners listening to the creaking of failing pit props in the darkness as acceptance slowly grows regarding Britain's departure from the Union.
The realities of future trade, and the maintenance of peace on the island of Ireland, seem to be finally dawning within an organisation rarely guilty of lifting its gaze from its collective navels. Perhaps it was the recent bloody violence in Northern Ireland that helped concentrate continental minds and demonstrate that there is a unique and fragile relationship between the province, the Republic and the UK.
Either way this week, whilst MEPs regretted that the UK did not want the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) to extend to foreign, security and development policies, and did not want to participate in the Erasmus+ student exchange programme, they nevertheless voted overwhelmingly to make the arrangement permanent, as opposed to the temporary deal agreed in December last year.
Just five members voted against approval, 32 abstained and 660 backed it, consenting to the agreement which sets out the rules for the future EU-UK relationship. A vote on the parliament’s evaluation and expectations moving forward was not so enthusiastic, 578 for, 51 against and 68 who decided for whatever reason to abstain. Without agreement the arrangement would have ended on 30 April.
The EU says that the zero quotas and zero tariffs trade agreement, coupled with fair competition rules could serve as a model for future trade agreements. Whilst saying the UK had committed an ‘historic mistake’ in leaving the EU it also criticised the unilateral action taken disregarding aspects of the protocols on Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Andreas Schieder (S&D, AT), rapporteur for the Committee on Foreign Affairs, said: "The EU and the UK have created the basis for a relationship among equals. Most importantly, today is a beginning, not the end. We agreed in many important areas, such as securing mutual market access and building a good relationship on trade.
"Much work remains on foreign policy and educational exchange programmes. For citizens’ interests to be represented, Parliament must be closely involved. Only a partnership in which both sides stick to their commitments has a future.”
Many in the UK will consider that last a little rich, coming as it does at a time when nationalist interests within the EU are perceived to trump collective agreements more than occasionally (think vaccine policy).
A further insight into the EU attitude was given by Christophe Hansen (EPP, LU), rapporteur for the Committee on International Trade, who commented: “Ratification of the agreement is not a vote of blind confidence in the UK Government’s intention to implement our agreements in good faith. Rather, it is an EU insurance policy against further unilateral deviations from what was jointly agreed. Parliament will remain vigilant. Let’s now convene the Parliamentary Partnership Assembly to continue building bridges across the Channel."
The attitude of the logistics industry charged with actually making such arrangement work was summed up by Robert Keen, Director General of the British International Freight Association (BIFA), who said after the TCA was ratified: “While the ratification of the TCA has removed any lingering doubts, the reality is that the changes within the agreement have been operational now for almost four months. Whilst the Government has extended the deadlines of the Border Operating Model, it now needs to address significant unresolved issues such as delayed Customs declarations.
“The experience of our members since January 1st 2021 has clearly shown that large sections of the trading community have not been prepared for the changes in processes brought in by phase one of the Border Operating Model.
“As the trade association that truly represents the UK’s freight forwarding businesses that manage a large proportion of the UK’s visible trade, we continue to express significant concerns regarding phases two and three of the Border Operating Model; and various Government departments have been unable to provide satisfactory answers to many of these.
“Actions speak louder than words and with the TCA now ratified, Government needs to engage extensively with businesses to support them to adjust to the new requirements already in place and to prepare for the new requirements to come, to avoid the ongoing disruption and difficulties which many of our members continue to report.”