A hundred days after Brexit, trade in the English Channel has suffered its biggest collapse ever, and political trust between London and Brussels has been undermined by the UK’s unilateral decisions in Northern Ireland, as well as by the vaccine war.
(Read: The European Union will start a legal battle against the United Kingdom)
In January, the first month in which the United Kingdom broke away from the European Union (EU) in 44 years, British exports to the bloc, its main trading partner, fell by 40.7% (€ 6,450 million) and imports fell by 28.8%. (7,600 million euros).
According to the latest figures released by the British Office for National Statistics (ONS), this is the largest drop on record since 1997, when it began collecting such data.
The impact on imports has been less due to the fact that the UK has postponed until 2022 controls on goods arriving in the country from the European Union, specifically in an effort to soften the economic blow to Brexit.
On the other side of the canal, new tariff requirements have been implemented as of midnight on December 31. As a result, food and animal production from the UK decreased by 59% in January compared to the monthly average for 2020, chemical product production by 52% and fuel production by 45%.
The evolution of the numbers over the next few months will determine how much this sharp downturn responds to a one-off correction, due in part to the build-up of stocks in the weeks leading up to Brexit, or whether the trend will continue in the long term.
Tension in Northern Ireland
The passage between British Northern Ireland and the island of Great Britain, where new customs requirements have been put in place, remains one of the main sources of post-Brexit tension.
The measure, which was agreed to avoid the border between Northern Ireland, and which would conflict with peace agreements in the region, effectively includes the UK’s home customs, which has angered trade unionists in Northern Ireland and sparked protests in recent days.
In an effort to reduce friction, the British government unilaterally decided not to implement all controls in Ulster until at least October, a move the European Union interprets as the breakdown of Brexit agreements.
After years of arduous negotiations to agree on the terms of the UK’s departure, the perception that London tried to breach the agreed terms a few weeks after its entry into force has damaged political confidence in the British government, a problem that could affect the future of cooperation in various fields.
“Extending grace periods unilaterally is definitely a technical breach of the protocol, despite the fact that the UK confirms that it is trying to make it work and the two sides are still talking,” said Patrick Holden, an expert on international political economy at the University of Plymouth.
He added, “What disturbs the European Union is that the United Kingdom has rejected offers to extend the transition period (which ended on December 31), but does not acknowledge that it is not prepared to implement what it agreed to for Northern Ireland.”
Despite Brexit, both sides of the channel have broad common interests in areas such as climate change and international relations with Russia, China and Middle Eastern countries.
Holden stressed that the fact that London and Brussels are now economic rivals, coupled with “deep hostility toward the European Union in the British media and the Conservative Party”, may complicate cooperation that requires “deep commitments and trust” on both sides.
The UK coronavirus vaccination program is far ahead of most European countries, creating the impression in some sectors of the UK that post-Brexit independence from the European Union has facilitated this success in managing the pandemic.
At the same time, the European Union has raised doubts about the speed of vaccination in the British Isles, while pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, which has designed a vaccine in collaboration with the University of Oxford, has failed to fulfill its delivery obligations to the bloc.
Threats to veto vaccine exports to the UK further strained relations and fueled confrontation with the European Union in the British press. “No, you cannot get our vaccines,” this is the headline of the “Daily Mail” newspaper; “Wait your Turn.
The “Daily Express” said “the selfish European Union wants our vaccines” in two samples of the dysfunctional relationship left by the brutal Brexit from the European club.