Tiger in the Tank or Not – Fine Words Butter No Brexit Parsnips

on 17.06.2020

On Friday 12 June 2020 at the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee meeting – the last formal moment to agree on an extension to the Transition Period – Michael Gove confirmed the long-standing position that the UK will not seek an extension of the transition period. Two of the many statements surrounding this confirmation are worth commenting on, as they encapsulate the spirit of the Brexit, for what they say as much as for what they omit, writes Zuzana Podracká, GLOBSEC’s Research Fellow. 

First, a statement by Whitehall official: “As we take back control of our laws and our borders at the end of this year, we will take a pragmatic and flexible approach to help business adjust to the changes and opportunities of being outside the single market and the customs union.” 

Behind the Brexit bingo language of ‘taking back control’ and ‘opportunities outside of the single market and customs union’ lies something that can plausibly be described as the UK government introducing a transition period to follow a transition period whilst not extending the original transition period. Though the UK businesses welcome the three stages of introducing border controls, the procedure does not exactly remove the obligation of a full customs declaration, merely delays it. In the likely absence of other (sufficient) measures efficiently implemented, it would not actually ease the administrative and cost burden on the private sector. 

More importantly, what this statement does not mention is that the EU too will ‘take back’, or rather ‘maintain’ control of its borders. Amid the UK preferences, the EU officials made it rather clear that there is no intention of EU “replicating UK’s ‘light touch’ border after Brexit”. Given that the EU as a bloc accounts for around 50% of UK’s exports, the effect this could have on the UK’s fragile post-pandemic economy could be striking. It is also worth mentioning that the flexible arrangement does not include trade between Northern Ireland and Ireland, or between Northern Ireland and the UK, as this is covered by the Withdrawal Agreement. Coincidentally, not only have the businesses in Northern Ireland expressed disappointment that there are no plans for similar ‘flexible approach‘ in the region, the implementation of this particular point of the Withdrawal Agreement is being flagged up as the area of key concern. The EU worries that the UK might try to wriggle out of some of its obligations on custom controls. 

Secondly, a hope expressed by UK officials that Johnson – von der Leyen summit could “pave the way for a compromise, in the same way as the prime minister’s walk in the woods in the Wirral with the Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, led to a breakthrough on the Irish border last October”. The point to be made here is just how much Boris Johnson is believed to be able to work something close to magic to break the deadlock in negotiations. In April, I wrote that Boris Johnson has convinced even the most sceptical of us that he was the only man who could ‘get Brexit done‘ – however, why this belief in his capabilities persists is anyone’s guess. 

Before the outbreak of the pandemic, there were several reasons to believe that he can save the day, chief among them his ability to negotiate a Withdrawal Agreement that gained approval on both sides of the Channel and carried him to a sweeping election victory. A few months later, however, he has become a Prime Minister of a country that is failing to get the COVID-19 under control in international and domestic terms, with the UK economy ‘falling off a cliff‘And despite the fact that his personal approval ratings are (somehow) falling more slowly than those of his party, his ongoing divisive rhetoric topped by the scandal surrounding his (still in position) advisor Dominic Cummings is not going unnoticed by the UK population at large or the Keith Starmer led Labour opposition. 

As for the EU, though by now there is a consensus that online negotiations have reached their limit, the bottom line remains that the failure to progress on any of the key areas from fisheries to citizens‘ rights is primarily caused not by a lack of charisma and good spirits (Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič himself described the meeting last Friday as cordial and constructive), but by the fact that we cannot seem to move from ‘the aspirational to the operational’ fast enough. After all, the main outcome of the Monday virtual meeting seems to be the agreement that we need to ‘put the tiger in the tank’ – but fine words butter no parsnips. It is high time that Boris Johnson and his government either use the accelerated talks schedule to actually put the ‘oven-ready’ deal into the oven or prepare for the many faces of starvation that await the UK. 

This article was originally published on the EU Reporter website on 17 June 2020.


Former Research Fellow, Future of Europe



Former Research Fellow, Future of Europe