Brexit impact fact-checked: How UKs departure from EU is really going two years on

Boris Johnson discusses plans under Brexit Freedoms Bill

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At 11pm on Friday, January 31, 2020, Britain officially enacted the biggest constitutional change in living memory, becoming the first member state to ever leave the EU. The momentous shift followed three years of political wrangling, much of which has continued in subsequent years. So where are we with Brexit now? This article will look at four key areas: trade, diplomacy, laws, and Northern Ireland. 

1. Trade

Trade, and the UK’s ability to strike fresh deals with global powers free of EU bureaucracy, was one of the cornerstones of the Leave campaign. 

But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Compounded by the pandemic, the UK’s departure from the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union has seen significant disruption to trade, particularly UK exports to the EU.

An exodus of European workers due to the pandemic and tighter immigration rules have contributed to a shortage of workers, with knock-on effects including the HGV driver shortage, which triggered the 2021 fuel shortage in Britain. 

However, released from strict EU trading laws, the UK has been free to pursue its own trade deals. 

So far, the UK has signed trade deals and agreements in principle with 69 countries and one with the EU ‒ however, the majority of these are “rollover deals”, copying the terms of the deals already existing when the UK was an EU member.

This is up for a rejig this year (see chapter on ‘laws’ below), but the UK has struck a number of unique deals, notably with Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.

The UK Government has also stated that a free-trade deal with the US remains a top priority, although the Biden administration appears to have played down chances of an imminent deal. 

In addition, the UK is on track to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership – a trade agreement between 11 Pacific Rim nations including Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, Singapore and Vietnam – in 2022. The member countries combined are worth 13 percent of the world’s GDP.

It is worth noting, however, that the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has warned that trade deals with non-EU countries will have little economic impact in the UK. 

Given its geographical proximity and market size, the EU will remain the UK’s top trade partner, making the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, signed between the UK and EU in December 2020, fundamental to the ongoing success of Brexit.

2. Diplomacy

Tensions between the UK and its EU neighbours have been strained since the 2016 referendum, a fact which hasn’t changed much in the years since. 

London and Brussels have clashed over several issues including diplomatic representation, coronavirus vaccine exports — and above all, new arrangements for Northern Ireland (see more below). 

The tensions have spilled over into arguments between the British and French governments over fishing permits and migration levels across the English Channel. 

At home, post-Brexit tensions continue putting pressure on the Union too, with Scotland pushing for another independence referendum after separatist parties won the majority of seats in 2021 Scottish Parliament elections.

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3. Laws

Under the Brexit deal struck with the EU, the UK no longer holds any role in the European Court of Justice (ECJ), the highest court in the EU. 

Ending the role of the ECJ was a key UK demand in negotiations as it would allow the UK to “take back control” of its laws.

The ECJ does, however, still have a role in Northern Ireland, and many of the laws that were eliminated after the UK left the EU were simply copied over from the former EU regulations. 

This is about to change, however, as the UK Government prepares to publish its Brexit Freedoms Bill this week. 

Downing Street said the bill will change how Parliament can amend or remove thousands of EU-era regulations that remain in force.

Areas said to be a particular focus of change include artificial intelligence, data protection and medicine trials. 

The Government has promised the new system would save British businesses up to £1bn through the cutting of red tape. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the bill would serve to “further unleash the benefits of Brexit and ensure that businesses can spend more of their money investing, innovating and creating jobs”.

4. Northern Ireland

Since the very beginning, the Northern Ireland border has been an issue without an answer. 

Sharing the UK’s only land border with an EU nation, and with a delicate socio-political balance, it has been crucial to get it right. 

The issue saw the demise of Theresa May and her backstop, and the current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has faced intense criticism for his attempts to kick the can down the road to get a deal over the line, leaving a chaotic situation in Northern Ireland as an undesirable protocol was implemented.

The protocol keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods and EU customs rules are enforced at its ports, a diversion from the rest of the UK. 

The border is a sensitive issue because of the history of Northern Ireland and the agreements made to bring peace, which included the removal of visible signs of the border.

The fear is that if any infrastructure were to be installed, such as cameras or border posts, it could become a target and lead to political instability.

During negotiations, all sides agreed that protecting the 1998 Northern Ireland peace deal (the Good Friday agreement) was an absolute priority.

Since signing up for the protocol, the UK has called for a relaxing of the rules, and the situation remains unresolved. 

Currently, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is in talks with Maroš Šefčovič, the EU’s chief negotiator, aimed at reaching an agreement on the protocol. 

The two issued a joint statement outlining their shared desire for a positive relationship and commitment to meet again soon.

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