25 March 2019

The completion of the European Commission’s no deal preparations highlight how much the UK will need the EU’s help if it Brexits without a deal, says Tim Durrant.

No deal Brexit is still the default outcome – it has just been delayed until 12 April. The European Commission’s latest update on its no deal planning shows that they consider a no deal exit on that date to be “increasingly likely” and, as a result, they have completed their preparation for this eventuality.

This sets out what the EU would do immediately following a no deal Brexit, but it also reveals how much more remains to be decided between the UK and the EU in that scenario –  and it is clear that the UK will need the support of Brussels if it is to manage the worst impacts.   

There is no transition if there’s no deal

As has been clear throughout the negotiation process, the EU’s preparations for no deal are nothing like as comprehensive as the transition period included in the Withdrawal Agreement. The EU’s measures are focused on specific areas, including flights, financial services and the status of students on the Erasmus+ exchange programme at the point the UK leaves. These measures are, for the most part, time-limited, lasting between 12 and 24 months; long-term arrangements will only be decided later.  

What they do signal is a dramatic change in arrangements between the UK and the EU: they provide neither continuity in UK-EU trading arrangements or security cooperation, nor certainty about the UK’s access to EU-negotiated agreements with other countries around the world.

The solution for the Irish border is still unclear  

The EU will also put in place measures to support Ireland, including maintaining PEACE funding for cross-border community projects and investing in new shipping links between Ireland and the Continent, bypassing the UK.

But the Commission has still not said what it will do, or require the Irish Government to do, at the border. The statement says that the EU will “immediately apply its rules and tariffs at its borders with the UK” if there is no deal, but the Commission also signalled that they hope to avoid “visible infrastructure”. It is unclear how they will do this – and the Irish Government has not set out its plans either.

The UK – and businesses within the EU – were hoping for more from the Commission

In its own no deal planning, the UK Government said that it hoped to negotiate specific arrangements with the EU in over 25 areas, including data protection, road haulage and pet travel. But the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told MPs last year that the EU is not in the market for “no deal deals”, and today’s update confirms that. Where the EU’s preparations rely on actions by the UK Government, such as on flight services and visa-free travel, the EU has said it will only put these measures in place if the UK reciprocates – and it sets out strict conditions for the UK to follow.

But the EU’s plans also disappoint businesses within the 27 remaining members. Business Europe, an EU-wide trade association, recently wrote to the Commission to set out their concerns about the EU’s plans. They identified a number of issues where they believe the EU’s plans are not sufficient, including data protection, support for businesses facing new customs procedures, and the strict controls the EU intends to impose on UK animal products and pharmaceutical goods. But there is no sign that the EU will take these concerns into account before 12 April. If no deal happens, expect these issues to shoot to the top of the agenda.

The UK will still be reliant on the EU after no deal

If the UK leaves the EU with no deal, it has become clear that it will be need the support of Brussels. If the UK wants to keep the Irish border open, put in place permanent arrangements for flights to and from the EU or secure a data protection adequacy arrangement to keep information flowing across borders, it will need the EU to move.

As underlined once more by the publication of the EU’s own preparations, however, that movement will be driven by the EU’s perception of its own, rather than the UK’s, interests.