View from Brussels: Less than harmonious

Brexit has happened and now the UK and EU have to live side by side with one another. But there are already signs that it is not going to be a smooth relationship, especially when it comes to interoperability of some rather important issues.

Vaccination numbers continue to climb across the whole of Europe, and to promote safe travel to countries that desperately need a shot of tourism euros the EU has rolled out a ‘vaccine passport’ of sorts.

The certificate scheme is accepted in every one of the 27 EU member countries, meaning double-vaccinated travellers, for the most part, can skip quarantine and testing. It also allows tests and Covid-recovery certificates to be logged.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, whose executive branch designed the scheme, is so proud of the initiative that she has been making a grand tour of every EU capital to show that it works.

This week, the EU agreed that Switzerland’s parallel system should be granted full equivalence by the scheme. That means that Swiss travellers have the same travel rights and perks as EU travellers, and vice-versa.

But the UK is not yet willing to grant the reciprocity needed to get the same deal, meaning that (for the time being), EU travellers cannot enter the UK without needing to quarantine and get tested.

The same is true on the other side of the Channel, depending on which country Brits are travelling to and how different governments are choosing to manage the risk posed by the delta variant of the virus.

This lack of harmonious policy-making was always going to be a symptom of Brexit. Indeed, the EU has not yet approved certain batches of the AstraZeneca jab, which complicates the issue even further.

Switzerland was able to get rapid approval for its certificates because it designed its scheme with EU-linkage in mind. That allowed the Commission to pull the trigger before the summer holiday season kicks off in earnest.

The UK, however, is only accepting vaccines administered by the NHS and therefore logged in the health service’s app or available as a physical copy from a GP. 

According to the government, that is the only way to validate vaccination status at this moment, but it is working on a solution that will broaden what jabs are recognised. Talks with the Commission are also reportedly ongoing.

It puts your correspondent in a rather awkward spot, having had the first dose of the vaccine in Wales and the second a month or so later in Belgium. It is only adding to the unfortunate ‘citizen of nowhere’ complex that Brexit has already triggered.

Vaccination passports will hopefully be a moot point in the medium- to long-term, given the logic that if the vast majority of people are jabbed, there will not be a need for proof of inoculation. New variants, of course, might blow a hole in that line of thinking.

But there are also more long-term factors that might be jeopardised by the EU and UK’s inability to commit to interoperability. In climate policy, for example, the question of emissions trading might fall victim to it as well.

When the UK withdrew from the EU it also nixed its participation in the Emissions Trading System (ETS), the bloc’s cap-and-trade carbon market, which is the foundation zone of its Green Deal.

The UK has since set up its own system and started trading. The carbon price is meant to be equivalent to the EU ETS and the sectors covered are largely the same. So far so good for the two neighbours, which when the wind blows right literally share emissions.

But the EU also plans to roll out its snappily titled ‘carbon border adjustment mechanism’ (CBAM), a carbon border levy that will tax certain imports that are not produced in a sustainable way. It might be up and running by 2023 and is set to target steel, iron and other energy-intensive materials

If the UK’s carbon price is the same as or at least comparable to the EU’s, there should be no problem, because charges will be calculated using domestic ETS systems in mind. The idea is that it will force countries to clean up their acts at home or see their exports dwindle.

As the Centre for European Reform points out though, even if the UK ETS is working well by the time the CBAM is in place, there will still be a big administrative burden placed on companies to demonstrate how green their products are.

If the two systems were linked, then that burden would likely be lifted and the associated costs would not need to be shouldered. Indeed, Switzerland has joined its carbon market to the EU’s and, despite some teething troubles, trading should be smooth by the end of the year.

The issue of interoperability is on paper a rather easy one to sort out. It just requires adults in a room, hashing out the technical aspects of whatever they want to be recognised.

Unfortunately, as Brexit has all too clearly shown, that is not always possible thanks to how politicised the relationship between the UK and EU has become. The pessimist would say that the prospects of ties improving are rather slim.

It is likely in the years to come that we will see many more instances of both parties working towards the same objectives but refusing to acknowledge each other's efforts, to the detriment of businesses, industry, researchers and just everyday people.

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