Finally, after more than three years of domestic political wrangling, the United Kingdom (UK) officially left the European Union (EU) last week on 31 January 2020. A landmark day in the history of both the world’s foremost supranational organisation and the UK. There is now a transition period till the end of 2020 during which the two sides will try to firm up their arrangements and till then it would seem nothing much has changed. But change there has been and a radical one at that. The EU and the UK will look remarkably different when the final arrangements will come into effect.
In many ways, this outcome became possible because of the mandate Boris Johnson got in last December’s election which he fought on the promise of getting Brexit done. The Tories under his leadership secured 365 seats in the House of Commons in the party’s best showing in a parliamentary election since 1987 as Britons fed up with the never ending debate on Brexit called for a final resolution. This was reflected in Johnson’s message last week before the UK's departure when he vowed to bring the country together and “take us forward”, underlining that “for many people this is an astonishing moment of hope, a moment they thought would never come. And there are many of course who feel a sense of anxiety and loss.”
While there were celebrations in many quarters, there were also pro-EU marches as well as anti-Brexit rallies. In Scotland, where the Scottish nationalists are calling for a new referendum on independence, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted: “Scotland will return to the heart of Europe as an independent country - #LeaveALightOnForScotland.” Divisions over the EU in the UK are not going to disappear and in fact, the struggle in the future might even be more intense.
And the UK-EU skirmishes too will continue. The European leaders have expressed sadness at the UK departure from the EU. French President Emmanuel Macron said that he was “deeply sad” while the EU's Guy Verhofstadt underlined his desire to “ensure the EU is a project you'll want to be a part of again.” But as the two proceed for discussions on a free trade agreement, cooperation on security, and new arrangements for fishing among others, intense negotiations lie ahead and nothing is a given. Brexit has generated a sense of solidarity among the remaining EU member states to ensure no more exits happen and in the process a hardening of attitude towards Britain is natural.
The momentum will shift towards the trade deal which Johnson wants to have in place by the end of the year. As the UK and EU get ready to outline their negotiating stance this week, Britain is suggesting that it won’t “be aligning with EU rules" in any post-Brexit trade deal even as the EU would want the UK to continue to follow the EU rules on standards. Johnson is keen to get a Canada style free trade deal but as the Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar made it clear that “Canada isn't the UK; you're geographically part of the European continent, we share seas and airspace and our economies are very integrated.”
The UK is now keen to move ahead with finalising free trade agreements with countries such as the United States, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Johnson has also talked of India as a key nation with which the UK would be keen to strike a trade deal post Brexit. This will be happening even as the fundamental underpinnings of British foreign policy will need to be re-evaluated now that Britain’s traditional approach to its external relations has become redundant. How global post Brexit ‘Global Britain’ can remain will be the challenge for London as domestic turmoil of the last three years has meant Britain focusing more and more inwards.
The UK has entered uncharted waters and its global interlocutors would be hoping that it resolves its problems with the EU sooner rather than later. An internally pre-occupied UK will continue to be marginal in the world affairs despite the best intentions of its government. India has a range of equities in a stable UK-India partnership and it too would be hoping for the emergence of a more globally engaged Britain. An era has ended for the UK with its formal departure from the EU, but the UK is yet to articulate its new global role for the new era in which it is stepping. India, along with the rest of the world is watching.
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