LONDON - Within hours of Britain’s official exit from the European Union Jan. 31, tensions simmered between London and Brussels over their future relationship.
Britain left the bloc at 11 p.m. London time Friday and immediately entered a transition period, where most rules and regulations remain the same. That period is set to end Dec. 31, and Britain has insisted it will not ask for an extension, leaving just 11 months to negotiate and ratify a free trade agreement. Early indications suggest the talks will be difficult, with big differences in the positions of both sides.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said that Britain will have to commit to aligning with EU standards in order to get a free trade deal.
“One thing we feel very strongly in the EU is that if we are going to have tariff-free, quota-free trade with the UK, which is essentially what we have with Canada on almost everything, then that needs to come with a level playing field. We, for example would have very strong views on fair competition and state aid,” Varadkar said in a BBC interview Sunday.
British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab insisted the UK will not follow EU regulations.
“We are taking back control of our laws,” Raab told Sky News Sunday. “So we're not going to have high alignment with the EU, legislative alignment with their rules, but we'll want to co-operate and we expect the EU to follow through on their commitment to a Canada-style free trade agreement.”
The EU’s free trade deal with Canada eliminates most tariffs on the buying and selling of goods, but does not cover services, which makes up around 80% of Britain’s GDP.
The economic arguments were forgotten Friday evening as hundreds of pro-Brexit supporters gathered in central London. A Brexit "countdown clock" was projected onto Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s residence at No. 10 Downing St. Friday.
Nigel Farage of the Brexit Party addressed the crowd: “We should celebrate the fact that freed from the constraints of the European Union, we once again will be able to find our place in the world,” Farage told hundreds of supporters gathered in the rain in Parliament Square.
Finding that place may not be so simple.
“Many people believe that Brexit having gone through 3½ years of debate about what kind of Brexit they have, and whether to have it, (that) it's all sorted, it's all done. It isn't done at all,” said Charlie Ries, international vice president of the RAND Corp. and a former U.S. ambassador. “In fact, the actual dimensions of the new relationship between the UK and the EU is just starting.”
Early indications suggest Europe will demand access to British fishing waters and guarantees that Britain won’t undercut the EU’s labor and environmental standards, in return for access to the EU Single Market. Britain has rejected any such deal.
The hard line from Westminster is putting the United Kingdom itself under increasing strain, with Scotland, which voted by a margin of 62% to remain in the EU in 2016, demanding a vote on independence so it can try to rejoin the bloc.
Across Britain, the divisions wrought by Brexit will not be easily healed. Meanwhile tensions are already building in what looks likely to be stormy year ahead.