On the Brussels Brexit breakthrough that isn’t

My reading of the ‘breakthrough’ agreement between the UK and EU is that there is a little progress on the rights of EU27 citizens in Britain following Brexit, and this is welcome. But, when it comes to the detail, England’s lame-duck leader and her Brussels interlocutors are kicking the can down the road. Brexit is ripe for such mixing of metaphors.

When it comes to the rights of Brits in Europe, there is no real progress. Apart from those born in the six counties, who have a treaty-enshrined right to an Irish passport, British citizens resident in EU27 lands will be stripped of their European citizenship, and shall not have a right of free movement throughout the union. As for the self-employed, I would like to know what restrictions we shall face compared with those moving across borders for reasons of employment.

There is today much wibbling on social media as to the wider political implications of the Brussels agreement, but for now it remains idle speculation. For Remainers, a popular interpretation is that the agreement spells the end for Brexit: i.e., that the whole wretched project will collapse under the weight of its internal contradictions. This is a comforting narrative in a time of increasing anxiety.

Will the English government scrap Brexit? It is a possibility, but not one for which I hold out much hope. A more practical interpretation of today’s developments is that the UK will remain within the Single Market and Customs Union, and leave the EU. But according to the acquis such an option requires full freedom of movement. It would amount to a supreme humiliation for a country that once ruled half the globe. So not all bad. What actually happens is likely to be messier than the broad-brush scenarios outlined, and one might as well forecast the future by reading tealeaves.

Within the National Union of Journalists we are discussing the issues through our online channels. I would very much like to hear what the NUJ’s Irish members think of the situation, not least as the political reporting on this side of the Celtic Sea is dominated by English exceptionalism. What the union in Britain should do is focus on a list of very specific questions concerning the rights of and burdens on self-employed and other cross-border journalists, accrued pension entitlements, taxation, the possibility of associate EU citizenship for cross-border Brits in Europe (as discussed within the European Parliament), and more.

Turning to scientific cooperation, paragraph #71 of the agreement indicates that UK participation in the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme is safe until 2020. But that is just one year into the putative post-Brexit transition period, in which case it is hardly cause for celebration.

We already know that the threat of Brexit has impacted negatively on British researchers in H2020. The atmosphere is so toxic that EU27 institutes are reluctant to partner with British colleagues in grant applications, and British management of new projects is out of the question.

Exisiting H2020 projects should be safe until 2020, but it will be interesting to see what happens to UK-based principal investigators after that point. Associate membership of H2020’s successor programme is the best we can hope for. That, like the ‘fax democracy’ of Single Market membership outside the EU, means subservience to Brussels, and a massive loss of strategic influence for England in the global research and development environment.