Boris Johnson in the heady days of December 2020, when he signed his Brexit deal (Image: Getty Images)
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In the past fortnight, Britain has marked five years since the vote for Brexit – and six months since it actually happened.
Seamless trade and EU rules have been replaced by a weighty trade deal, and the UK making the first steps to strike out on its own.
It’s certainly not been the total disaster some feared – partly because the impact on firms is masked by the hit from coronavirus .
House prices have not collapsed (quite the opposite, thanks to the Stamp Duty cut). We got a trade deal, we’ve not seen 7,000-truck queues and we’ve ‘taken back control’ of UK laws. Nissan, which had warned it could pull UK investment, has announced a massive investment in the electric car industry.
There have been pluses, too. We have a trade deal with Australia with more in the pipeline.
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But the six months since the transition period ended on December 31 have also been fraught with controversy – most notably in Northern Ireland.
The region’s peace is under threat in a tit-for-tat blame game in which the UK tries to claim it is the EU’s fault – for implementing rules Boris Johnson himself signed up to.
So what exactly hasn’t gone to plan in the first six months – and are they teething issues or here to stay? We look at the biggest issues.
The sausage wars
The UK and Brussels have been embroiled for months in a spat over EU laws that would stop British sausages being moved to Northern Ireland.
Boris Johnson threatened to break his own Brexit agreement if the ban on chilled meats – which he signed up to as part of the deal – had taken effect on June 30.
In the end it was extended with hours to spare by another three months. But that is not a permanent solution and we’re bound to see more sausage headlines before September 30.
Britain and EU declare eleventh hour truce over Brexit sausage trade ban
So what’s it all about? EU chiefs are furious at the UK for failing to implement the Northern Ireland Protocol, which was agreed as part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement struck last year.
The protocol essentially puts Northern Ireland under some EU customs, single market and “product of animal origin rules”.
This is a compromise to avoid there being checks along its border with the Republic – a so-called “hard border”.
But it essentially means there’s a border in the Irish Sea instead – splitting the UK in two, and leading to fury from Unionists as well as hard-line Loyalists (see below).
Boris Johnson called yesterday for “goodwill” and “patience” from Brussels, while German leader Angela Merkel said: “It should be possible for all of us to come to a pragmatic solution”.
It's a meaty issue
All this matters because…
Peace threatened in Northern Ireland
It’s not just about sausages – the row over Northern Ireland goes to the heart of crucial issues of sovereignty and peace.
Boris Johnson had repeatedly insisted he would do nothing to break up the union of the UK.
And Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis claimed on January 1: "There is no ‘Irish Sea Border’." This week he admitted that tweet "has not aged well".
The PM blames the creation of an Irish Sea border on the EU, saying they should be more flexible. But the EU say he should have read his own Brexit deal and they’re just enforcing it.
Graffiti reading 'No Irish Sea border' near Belfast City centre
The trade barriers have inflamed tensions, leading to threats against port staff having to carry out the checks on inbound goods.
There were days of violence in Belfast, and in April First Minister Arlene Foster – who had supported Brexit – announced she would resign.
Half a million EU citizens waiting for settled status
Boris Johnson claimed in 2016 that EU citizens would “automatically” be given indefinite leave to remain in the UK after Brexit. In 2017 he told them: “You are loved, you are welcome, your rights will be protected whatever happens”.
But since June 30, EU citizens no longer have a legal right to live and work in the UK unless they’ve been granted “settled status”.
Despite the application system being free and open for more than two years, a surge of around 50,000 applications came at the last minute on June 30 itself.
Any late applicants could be rejected if they do not show “reasonable grounds” for having failed the June 30 deadline.
Officials insist a flexible approach will be taken to late applications, and those who submit an application will not lose any rights until it has been considered. Good thing too, as more than 500,000 applications are still being considered by the Home Office.
EU citizens were originally promised the process would be 'automatic'
(Image: HOLLIE ADAMS/EPA-EFE/REX)
But campaigners fear hard-to-reach EU citizens could end up losing their rights to live, work, access the NHS or claim benefits in the UK. Those who missed the deadline and are identified by Immigration Enforcement will now start receiving 28-day ultimatums to file a late application – or lose their rights.
Meanwhile, from this week, EU citizens with pre-settled or settled status have no longer been able to rely on their passport or ID card for proof they can live and work in the UK. Instead they must log in to view their status online and generate a “share code” to show landlords or employers – who face hefty fines for hiring someone without the right status.
Covid holidays in the EU appear more difficult
Many readers of the Mirror have been clamouring to find out information about where Brits can go on holiday this summer.
And to be honest, it’s pretty thin. Even countries that are added to our “green list” – meaning you don’t have to quarantine on return to the UK – have Covid isolation rules at the other end.
This week the EU launched its ‘Digital Covid Certificate’, which should allow more movement of citizens between EU countries. However, for the moment it’s between EU countries – not the UK.
That means that Brits might have been able to get to destinations like Spain and Greece more quickly than under the current, slow-moving system.
On the plus side, say critics, at least we’re not dealing the EU’s vaccine rollout, which had several faltering months and bitter fights with AstraZeneca and the UK.
The economy will be smaller
Chancellor Rishi Sunak had some baddies in his Budget small print
(Image: AFP via Getty Images)
Many of the most extreme predictions before Brexit happened have not come true. However, that doesn’t mean there’s been no impact at all.
The Office for Budget Responsibility said in March that it expected GDP to fall by 0.5% in the first three months of this year due to short-term trade disruption.
And it stuck by its prediction that Brexit will lead to a long-term loss of productivity of about 4%, realised over 15 years.
It suggested around two-fifths of the 4% impact “has effectively already occurred, as a result of uncertainty since the
referendum weighing on investment and capital deepening.”
So you might not see an instant impact in the supermarket – but this suggests the economy is smaller than it otherwise would have been.
Trade with the EU plummeted in January
The UK’s trade with the EU – its largest trading partner by far – collapsed in January as Covid restrictions and Brexit hit hard.
Exports to the EU fell by 41% in January, compared with a 2% rise to non-EU countries.
Imports from the EU fell by 29% in January, compared with only a 13% fall from non-EU countries.
In fairness, the chart below shows Covid has been a factor – and experts do suggest firms stockpiled EU goods in the Autumn so a short-term fall in trade was inevitable. But the Road Haulage Association said at least half of trucks that came from Europe to the UK were being sent back again empty in January, many due to the complexities of paperwork.
Since then, things have recovered – though they’re not back to the level they were last Autumn. Imports from the EU hit £18.4bn in April, climbing back to the level they had been at in July 2020. Exports to the EU were at £12.9bn in April, roughly what they were in October.
Fishing communities were left in chaos
Fishermen who export to the EU have been battered by red tape since new rules took force on January 1.
Fish and meat are more complex than other exports because they need to meet rules on “products of animal origin”. Exporters must fill out an Export Health Certificate and have their goods checked at an EU Border Control Post.
The National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations said the first consignments to Calais hit a “brick wall of bureaucracy”.
The government opened a £23m compensation fund for those hit, worth up to £100,000 per fisherman. But it was criticised by a committee of MPs for refusing compensation to fishing firms that incurred costs preparing to trade with the EU.
MPs were more in favour of a second Seafood Response Fund which was only launched later.
The Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee warned in April: “Despite overcoming initial ‘teething problems’, the new barriers small seafood and meat export businesses face could render them unviable, and factories and jobs may relocate to the EU.”
Many shellfish exports to the EU are still banned completely
As if this wasn’t bad enough, some shellfish exports have been banned completely since January 1 after a legal dispute between the UK and EU.
Ministers admitted there is a total ban on certain types of mollusc from ‘Class B’ waters around the UK being sent to the EU.
And after the UK initially claimed it would only last until April, the EU clarified the ban was in fact being made permanent.
Waters around Wales and South West England are affected, with exports of mussels, oysters, clams and cockles all hit.
Several shellfish firms are now threatening legal action against the UK government for “negligence and maladministration”.
James Green of the Whitstable Oyster Company – whose Kent seaside town holds an annual oyster festival – told MPs: "This put ourselves and others in the industry in a highly perilous situation.
"The town’s fortunes are built and always have been upon the availability of local oysters.”
Mr Eustice insisted the EU had promised no such ban would apply in September 2019 – only to then impose it after Brexit took force.
Defra minister Victoria Prentis said on June 17: "The European Commission’s ban on the import of live bivalve molluscs from class B waters is wrong and unjustified. We have repeatedly told the European Commission that and we will continue to raise the issue."
Online shopping from the EU got more expensive
There was an initial flood of Brits ordering goods online from the EU – only to find they were more expensive.
One woman told the BBC her £150 pair of boots from France came with £78 of taxes and duties on top.
Another spent £600 on two handbags – only to be charged an extra £123 on arrival.
The extra costs are because of changes to VAT rules due to Brexit. Goods costing more than £135 now have the VAT applied when they reach the UK, and to some that extra bill has come as a surprise.
It isn’t just purchases that come with a surprise price tag – gifts from EU friends and family now have that burden too.
One woman told the BBC she had to pay £30 in taxes on a pair of earrings gifted to her by a friend in Greece.
Under post-Brexit rules you pay VAT on gifts worth more than £39 on arrival in the UK.
Relations with the EU got so bad, we had to reinstate a Brexit minister
Boris Johnson appointed an unelected Cabinet minister for Brexit – just a year after he scrapped the job of Brexit Secretary.
Despite claiming he would "get Brexit done" in the 2019 election, the Prime Minister hired his Brexit negotiator David Frost in February to "lead the UK's institutional and strategic relationship with the EU".
It came after a series of spats between the EU and UK that led to urgent talks being convened to find a solution.
Aside from grace periods and trade, one row erupted because the UK denied full diplomatic status to the EU’s envoy in London.
In another row not directly caused by Brexit, the EU was accused of trying to break international law by setting up an Irish hard border over vaccines.
The EU has been threatening restrictions on the export of jabs made in its territory as its own Covid vaccine rollout falters.