It has been exactly five years since Britain voted to exit the European Union, 17 months since the UK formally left and 174 days since the end of the transition period. But in Brussels, there’s one topic that even now just will not go away: Brexit.
Now chairing a conference on the future of Europe, the former Belgian prime minister despairs at the amount of political bandwidth Brexit still consumes for diplomats, MEPs and officials – and the effect of this on the cross-channel relationship.
“We should be defending our shared interests against emboldened autocrats and other challenges, and uniting behind our liberal-democratic ideals,” he says. “Yet precisely at this time we are divided and distrustful of each other.”
As Verhofstadt references, it is sausages – or as World Trade Organisation wonks would say, “chilled meats” – that are the latest focal point of the Brexit back-and-forth.
The UK government is having second thoughts about agreeing to impose controls on exports between the British mainland and Northern Ireland, but the EU says Boris Johnson should stand by the agreement he signed up to.
The EU is legally on solid ground: the UK’s commitment is spelled out in black and white in a document less than two pages long that leaves no room for confusion.
But the British government argues that the EU is being overly legalistic, with the impact of the protocol it signed on Northern Ireland worse than expected, and that it needs to be dialled down. Unionists and businesses alike say the current situation is not tenable.
It is fair to say that the prime minister’s approach – unilateral action that appears to breach the agreement he signed months ago – is shredding much of his government’s remaining credibility in EU capitals.
“This will only end when the UK aligns its political vision with the real world,” Verhofstadt says.
“All Mr Johnson is doing is exporting his own problems and political agenda – Brexit redux – but the European market for that has become very small indeed.”
He adds: “[Brexit minister David] Frost still imagines this is a negotiation, when the international treaty is signed. Pacta sunt servanda, they know this as well as anyone, but don't want to deal with the consequences of their own decisions.”
EU officials say the UK’s approach on Northern Ireland is souring relations more widely at a time when they should be making a fresh start.
“It doesn’t give much impetus for us to do more stuff with the UK if you’re not implementing the previous agreements anyway,” one diplomat says. “And other countries around the world are looking at it and saying, ‘What’s the story there?’ We saw that a little bit at the G7.”
With the Covid-19 pandemic, Russia, China, and economic recovery to focus on, European capitals are tired of talking about an issue they thought they had already settled after five years of late-night summits, marathon negotiating sessions and cryptic speeches.
“We’ve spent so much time dealing with this over the past couple of years and now that we have other fish to fry, it’s time to move on,” one EU official tells The Independent.
“If you ask Vienna or Bratislava or somewhere they’ll say, ‘Didn’t we sort out Northern Ireland with the protocol? There’s an agreement, why don’t you implement it?’ They have no space whatsoever to be talking about it.”
‘We’re bending over backwards’
UK Brexit minister Lord Frost last week asked the EU for “a bit of breathing space” to delay extra controls set to come in at the end of the month on chilled meats. But European officials are exasperated at British behaviour.
“For four and a half years we were negotiating. Each measure, each word of the protocol and the withdrawal agreement was carefully combed over, we spent hours on it, each sentence we spent months, years, going through it,” the same EU official said.
“The UK knew exactly what it was doing, exactly what it meant, knew exactly what it was signing up to, none of it can come as a surprise.
“Then in December, a couple of weeks away from the end of the transition period, the UK said ‘Look, there’s a few issues that we’re not ready for, can we agree some grace periods?’ We said, ‘Yes, you’ll have to follow some conditions’ – you know, meeting EU standards, all the rest, putting stickers and labels on packages going to Northern Ireland.
“Now here we are, six months later, and they haven’t done anything. Hardly any of the conditions that they signed up to in December for these grace periods have been fulfilled.”
The official added: “We are bending over backwards to try and find solutions here but there’s only so far we can go if the UK’s done nothing in the six months.”
A UK government spokesperson said the Northern Ireland protocol was “being implemented in a way which is causing disruption for the people of Northern Ireland” and that “the UK has made more than a dozen written proposals to address this, across the range of issues under the protocol”.
“We will continue to work hard with the EU to find pragmatic solutions that protect the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, in all its dimensions, and the peace process in Northern Ireland,” they added
“If solutions cannot be found, we will consider all options available for safeguarding peace, prosperity and stability in Northern Ireland.”
The departure of the UK is also feeding back into the talks and making it harder to make progress. With Britain no longer participating in EU institutions, there’s no seat at the summit table for Boris Johnson in Brussels anymore.
Though these meetings were scoffed at by many Brexiteers, their absence means no quarterly “crunch summit” deadlines that often provided the impetus for progress in earlier years of negotiations. As such, political progress around implementing the Northern Ireland agreement has been not just slow, but largely formless.
‘It was an eye-opener’
But not everyone in Brussels has lost interest. Sophie in ’t Veld, an MEP from the Netherlands’ Democrats 66 party, has spent much of the past five years scrutinising the Brexit process. She is not about to stop, and says her colleagues in the European Parliament are still paying attention.
“Of course the focus is on lots of things at the moment but no, I think it’s still very much on the agenda,” she tells The Independent – reeling off topics she's been following, ranging from a European Commission decision on UK data sharing, to a ruling at the Court of Appeal on migration information.
“I think parliament definitely is still very keen to follow what’s happening, to monitor, to intervene when necessary. Brexit isn’t dominating everything but it’s about our relationship with the UK, repositioning if you like, getting used to new relations.“
The European Parliament was cut from 751 to 705 MEPs after Britain’s departure, with only some of the UK’s 73 seats distributed to other countries. But on top of that, In ’t Veld says the culture of the EU legislature has changed – for the worse.
It is “a lot less fun” without the Britons, she says, even though they can now get on without Nigel Farage’s band of Brexiteers. “I love my British colleagues of all [party] colours, and some of them I love to hate. But the Brits have a very strong parliamentary tradition and a strong debating culture and that is very much missing.”
Debates in the European Parliament are significantly less lively than the House of Commons, and interventions by British MEPs, Brexiteers especially, have previously provided the most vivid splashes of colour.
But could there be any potential upsides to losing the British influence? The MEP is quick to respond: “For me it’s only downsides. I really don’t see any benefit, and this is really very personal – I miss them.
“I’ve been here for 27 years, I miss them and I miss working not just with the individuals who I was friends with but their input, their presence in European politics, their significance for the European project.”
Verhofstadt has never made a secret of detesting Brexit, telling The Independent it is a “march of folly” from which “everyone loses out”. But unlike In ’t Veld he sees a potential silver-lining in the UK’s departure for the remaining EU member states.
“It was an eye-opener, to see a leading country shoot itself in the foot that way,” he says.
“Many Europeans were instantly cured of any urge to leave the EU – even the Eurosceptics in countries like France no longer talk of blowing up the EU, since they know voters are simply appalled by Brexit.
“And most EU politicians were shocked into a sense of responsibility large enough to try and make sure the situation didn’t get even worse: Europe’s essential unity was never in doubt, despite all we’ve been through in these negotiations. That was a surprise to many of us.”
Many of the consequences of the decision to leave have already hit: trade with the EU is down, export businesses bamboozled; free movement has ended for all UK nationals, rights have been curtailed, exchange programmes are winding down.
The government argues that benefits are emerging in the form of a free trade agreement with Australia, and has previously said that Brexit helped its Covid-19 vaccination drive – although Britain planned and executed it largely inside the EU’s European Medicines Agency.
‘Negotiate yet more bureaucracy’
Yet on the other side of the channel, one group of people feeling the problems especially acutely are the British nationals living in the EU, most of them working age, and many of them denied a vote in the referendum that decided their future.
“We were told many times that we wouldn’t lose rights, nothing would change,” says Kalba Meadows, a UK national living in France and part of the campaign group British In Europe.
But those living abroad are having to negotiate yet more bureaucracy to safeguard their right to remain in their countries, with many apparently unaware they have to do so, and facing a dangerous legal limbo.
“There has been very, very little publicity done in any EU country. It’s one area where the UK has done very much better,” says Meadows, referring to the EU settlement schemes that European nationals have to apply to.
“I think it’s fair to say that there will be people who are going to lose rights. Not just residency rights, but all sorts of other things come along after that: employment, healthcare, benefits, pensions, all of that. So it’s really serious: we’re talking about a possible large number of undocumented migrants.”
Countries with looming registration deadlines at the end of the month include France, Latvia, Malta and Luxembourg. And even those that do register will face new restrictions on free movement and crossing borders for work.
“There are ridiculous examples of that: for example, we have a French resident, British, a taxi driver, who lives on the French-Swiss border and whose main job was picking up people from the airport in Geneva,” says Meadows.
“He can no longer do that because he’s lost his right to do that, to work across borders as a self-employed person. That’s just one. I could give you thousands.”
The problems are felt by Britons across the EU, but especially so in Brussels, where EU citizenship is required for many roles working in the institutions. Even UK journalists reporting on EU affairs have been put to the back of the queue for working at summits.
The effect on British officials still working within the EU has been significant, too. MEP In ’t Veld bemoans Britons’ increasing scarcity in the bureaucracy, dubbing UK civil servants generally “excellent” and suggesting they are “not just knowledgeable but know to get things done”.
One British national who works at an EU institution is frank about the mood, telling The Independent: “Many Brits have left, those who remain are treated with respect, but do face significant hurdles in their careers. The British sense of humour is missed and the confrontational, hardworking approach of most of the British MEPs is missed.
“I would say there is an acknowledgement that the UK under this government has moved from partner to something else, possibly even antagonist, but also that this could swing back quickly the other way.”
Verhofstadt is certain that Brexit will eventually be reversed, but he wouldn’t like to guess at a timescale.
“Undoing a mistake is much, much harder than making one. It takes a lot of time and energy. So I wouldn’t bet on when it will happen,” he says.
“But reuniting the UK and Europe will happen just like uniting Europe happened: spread the word, plant the idea, keep up the networks from citizens to businesses and from trade unions and academics to diplomats and artists. What we share in terms of ideas and interests is much more than what divides us.”