Ever since 23 June 2016, the day on which 51.89% of the UK population voted to leave the European Union, Brexit has been a hot topic in Brussels. However, the closer the end of the transition period gets, the more it seems like EU officials adopt a laissez-faire attitude towards Brexit. While you should not expect Brussels to take such an approach to breaches of the withdrawal agreement as demonstrated this week, the EU has remained unusually silent on Brexit.
Let’s face it: the end of the Brexit transition period is just around the corner. As agreed in the Withdrawal Agreement, the transition period will expire on 31 December 2020, which leaves the EU and the UK with less than four months to negotiate a future partnership agreement on an endless list on topics including future trade, data protection, fisheries, transport, foreign and security policy. It is no news that prospects for a breakthrough in negotiations are fading with every day that is passing, and for some, Boris Johnsons’ intentions to unilaterally amend the Northern Ireland Protocol are the last nail in the coffin. The full implementation of the Protocol, which is part of last year’s Brexit withdrawal agreement, is a prerequisite for a deal to be reached with the UK, and the EU will not be shy in taking legal actions if the UK puts the Northern Ireland peace deal at risk.
While Brussels openly voices its concerns about breaches of the withdrawal agreement, Brexit has nevertheless disappeared from the top of the EU’s agenda. Does Brussels just sit back and relax?
The answers are yes and no. The EU surely aims to avoid a no-deal scenario, not at least to preserve the UK’s status as a key trade partner. From time to time, the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier sends a friendly reminder across the Channel over twitter, recalling that the clock is ticking and that “companies and citizens must get ready” for Brexit. But the UK’s withdrawal is by no means on the top of the EU’s agenda (anymore). It is business as usual in Brussels, and policymakers and politicians are more concerned about the rule of law in Poland, Coronavirus recovery in Italy and Presidential elections in Belarus. Even the “Brexit” header has disappeared from Brussel’s leading news websites.
It seems like after seven rounds of negotiations, the EU has finally understood that its moral arguments do not bear fruits in London. Instead of playing the moraliser, the EU has adopted a more pragmatic and realistic approach to the Brexit negotiations. Its demands and red lines are clear, and Brussels has learned not to worry too much about kilometre long queues of lorries awaiting custom check in Kent or London’s £705m bill on a new border management system. Even the 15 billion vacuum the UK’s withdrawal is expected to leave in the EU’s budget has quickly been filled by other resources, such as the new EU plastic waste tax. Brussels knows that it is in a good negotiation position, as it has already achieved one of its major demands: the preservation of the rights of EU citizens living in the UK. With a well-functioning EU Settlement Scheme in place, the EU could sit back and relax. As EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier summarised during his speech to an Irish thank on 2 September, “We will not sacrifice — never sacrifice — the EU’s long-term economic and political interests for the sole benefit of the U.K”.