Last reviewed 5 August 2022

When he delivered his resignation speech outside 10 Downing Street on 7 July, Boris Johnson listed first among his achievements as Prime Minister that he had “got Brexit done”. However, his critics have highlighted the major unresolved problem that Mr Johnson leaves to his successor: how to ensure unhindered trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland without breaching the Northern Ireland Protocol.

All change?

The outgoing Prime Minister suggested that, with him out of office, “the deep state” would try to “haul us back into alignment with the EU as a prelude to our eventual return”. Given that the two politicians campaigning to replace him — Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss — are devoted Brexiteers (albeit belatedly in the case of Ms Truss), this seems unlikely. There was a slight raising of hopes in Brussels on news of Mr Johnson’s resignation with the former EU Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, tweeting: “The departure of Boris Johnson opens a new page in relations with the UK. May it be more constructive, more respectful of commitments made, in particular regarding peace & stability in NI, and more friendly with partners in the EU.” This was quickly followed by a comment from the European Parliament’s former co-ordinator on Brexit matters, Guy Verhofstadt, who said: “Things can only get better!”

However, any hopes of a sudden reconciliation were soon squashed as the Government moved to get the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which would allow the UK to unilaterally dis-apply parts of the Protocol agreed with the EU in 2020, through the Committee Stage of its reading before the beginning of the Summer recess. Both Ms Truss and Mr Sunak have spoken in favour of the Bill, enthusiastically so in her case. It is therefore unlikely that the Government’s decision to provide French and German translations of a document setting out the advantages of the Bill will have done much to reassure the EU that a new age of co-operation is about to dawn.

Businesses unhappy with slow progress

Mr Johnson’s enthusiastic claims about Brexit were repeated when he gave his farewell speech in the House of Commons and were warmly received by many of his backbenchers. This faith in the benefits of Brexit seems less evident in the outside world with the Institute of Directors (IoD) being the latest business group to voice its concerns. Its Directors’ Economic Confidence Index, which measures business leader optimism in prospects for the UK economy, remained very low at -54 in July.

Of those that said they were pessimistic about the prospects for the UK economy, when required to choose the main reason for their pessimism, the difficulties in the UK’s trading relationship with the EU were cited by 18%, a higher return than supply chain problems affecting the UK (7%), falling customer demand (10%), the international price of energy (9%) or political instability in the UK Government (17%). Only the rate of inflation in the UK (29%) scored higher.

Retained EU law

The ongoing campaign to become the next leader of the Conservative Party has seen both candidates promising to reduce the amount of retained EU law, with Ms Truss coming close to the suggestion made by Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Cabinet Office Minister responsible for Brexit opportunities, of axing all remaining EU laws by June 2026. She said that, if elected, she would set a “sunset” deadline for every piece of EU-derived business regulation and assess whether it stimulates domestic growth or investment by the end of 2023. Those that failed the test would either be scrapped or replaced by “better home-grown laws” devised by “industry experts”. Mr Sunak said he would appoint a Brexit Minister to go through the remaining 2400 EU laws still on the statute book in a similar winnowing exercise.

A recent report by Parliament’s European Scrutiny Committee has given further strength to the campaign to remove the legacy of EU legislation from the UK statute book when it concluded that the principle of the supremacy of EU law should be scrapped. It added that allowing this to continue would be incongruous with the UK’s legal framework. Supremacy means that these EU-originated laws in areas such as workers’ rights and the chemical and financial sectors trump UK laws made before 31 December 2020 where they conflict. The Committee recommended that the anticipated Brexit Freedoms Bill should include expansive powers to amend retained EU law using secondary legislation. Echoing Ms Truss, its members said the Bill should include a sunset provision with an ambitious timeframe, after which all retained EU law would be repealed.

Labour Party turns its back on Single Market

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has ruled out the idea of the UK rejoining the EU’s single market, in the event of his party winning the next election, arguing that this would be “a recipe for more division”. In one of his first major speeches on relationships with the EU, Sir Keir said: “So let me be very clear: with Labour, Britain will not go back into the EU. We will not be joining the single market. We will not be joining a customs union.” He did not respond to a suggestion by French President Emmanuel Macron that the EU might consider setting up a European Political Community as an alternative to full Union membership for countries such as Ukraine and possibly even the UK.

Supporting research outside Horizon

The Government has set out a package of transitional measures to ensure the stability and continuity of funding for researchers and businesses if the EU continues to block UK associate membership of its multi-billion Horizon research programme. This had been written into the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) but has been stalled by the European Commission until the impasse over the Northern Ireland Protocol is resolved. The Government has now set out “a preliminary vision” for a long-term, alternative programme to Horizon should it be required.

Sir Jim McDonald , President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said that the Government was wise to develop alternative plans for UK research and innovation investment but warned that the strong preference of the Academy and the wider global research and innovation community is for the UK to associate with Horizon Europe.

Planning ahead

Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg, has announced that the Government, in partnership with industry, has launched six innovation pilots that are intended to transform the way the border operates. He explained that the Ecosystem of Trust pilots will assess the use of technology, data and trusted trader relationships to minimise the administrative burdens and costs on traders which are ultimately passed on to the consumer. The model aims to create a more secure border, while limiting the need for the Government to conduct compliance activities at the border, with traders allowed to perform more self-assessment at their premises, Mr Rees-Mogg went on. Ultimately, he concluded, it could remove “the transactional nature of customs/border processes”.

Six consortia were successful in their bids and the pilots are led by Azarc, Chainvine, IBM & Maersk, Fujitsu, Palantir and the Institute of Export and International Trade (IOE&IT). The pilots will run until the end of the year to establish how they can be scaled to a new border model which will increase the efficiency, speed and. crucially. the safety of the UK’s trade borders. IOE&IT director general, Marco Forgione, said: “We’re proud to have been selected to lead both the UK Government’s Africa and EU to Immingham Ecosystem of Trust pilot schemes. These pilots are part of the plan to create the world’s best border by 2025.”

Entente cordiale?

In possibly the first positive news to come out of UK-EU negotiations this year, the two sides have settled a challenge by the EU on the UK’s Contracts for Difference (CfD) scheme which was brought before the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in March. The scheme supports low-carbon electricity production, helping increase renewable energy capacity and reducing the cost of renewables. The EU alleged that eligibility rules around local content for energy subsidies in the CfD scheme breached WTO rules but it has withdrawn its objections following talks with International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan.

Voice of the public

Answering the question heading this piece, Brexit cannot in any real sense be said to be done until the vexed question of the Northern Ireland Protocol is resolved. If the new Prime Minister continues to press ahead with the Bill currently going through Parliament then the EU is certain to retaliate and the TCA, which was Mr Johnson’s passport to power, faces being replaced by a trade war with the UK’s largest customer. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that the latest poll published by YouGov found that 54% of Britons believe that Brexit is going badly, with just 16% agreeing that it is going well.