In his poem The Fisherman, W.B. Yeats bemoaned ‘the clever man who cries the catch-cries of the clown’. In more recent times, slogans have played a significant role in Brexit discourse; ‘Take back control’ and ‘Get Brexit Done’ may come to mind immediately. Appealing as these slogans may be to sections of a public allegedly weary of experts, they tragically belie both the complexity and consequences of the UK’s withdrawal. This outstanding edited collection, if it could only be reduced to three words, would be a compelling counter-slogan. Indeed, and this is no criticism of the editors or the contributors (quite the opposite, in fact), this volume is almost overwhelming, even for the most seasoned (or scarred) Brexit watcher. It is difficult to imagine that this book could have been written by anything other than a team of specialist scholars, each bringing detailed, yet highly accessible analysis to what are often niche, but important issues concerning the international dimension of Brexit.
The editors at the outset emphasise that the purpose of the volume is to adopt a future perspective. They stress also that their aim is to move beyond the perspective of EU law only to look at the new relationships that will be established between the EU and the UK under EU external relations law and international law, as well as the position of both entities in international organisations (p. 2). In doing so successfully, the volume reflects the truism that ‘Brexit is a process, rather than an event’, and one that will outlive the end of the transition period, just as this volume’s relevance will. Brexit has also involved a panoply of legal regimes (national law, EU institutional law, EU external relations law, and international law), often simultaneously. The structure of the volume reflects this well. The internally focussed EU lawyer, such as this reviewer, may feel that they are on something resembling terra firma in Part I (the framework for the future relationship between the EU and the UK), in which there are, for instance, enlightening chapters on the wider lessons learned from the Article 50 process (by Tatham, pp. 13-29 and Polak, pp. 58-70). Lock’s chapter on the legal position during the transition period under the Withdrawal Agreement reveals a complex interplay between EU law and international law, the UK being placed in a ‘twilight zone’ between third country status and EU membership (pp. 30-44). In the remaining parts of the volume, consideration turns to the position after the 31st December 2020, when the UK has sailed past the harbour walls of the transition period and into potentially rough and rude open seas, where the international lawyer may feel more at home. Discrete parts of the volume focus on existing international agreements (Part II), international organisations and EU diplomacy (Part III), common foreign, security and defence Policy (Part IV), specific international arrangements (Part V), and contested and external effects of Brexit (Part VI). There is comprehensive treatment of a wide array of subject areas, such as air transport (Douma, pp. 90-103), EU-UK relations at the WTO (Messenger, pp. 135-147), fisheries (Castillo de la Torre and Stobiecka-Kuik, pp. 181-196), sanctions policies (Poli, pp. 213-225 and Szép and Van Elsuwege, pp. 226-240), and EU agencies (Ott, pp. 255-269).
At least two themes emerge from the contributions. First, it becomes evident almost throughout that the UK has prioritised the ‘taking back control’ mantra over what might be considered economic and other more pragmatic considerations. The consequences, actual and potential, of that approach are made evident throughout the volume, from loss of influence to the need to replicate with haste the EU’s pre-existing trade agreements with third countries (Łazowski, pp. 117-131). Secondly, several contributions highlight the extent of the challenges presented by Brexit to the EU, many of which may not occur to anyone but a specialist. Take, for example, a possible diminution in the Union’s presence on the global stage from the resultant downsizing of the EU’s diplomatic network (Gatti, pp. 165-180).
One may conclude that Brexit (in the wider sense) is not done, and a long, perhaps never-ending, voyage lies ahead. This volume provides an invaluable guide, based on the best available understanding of the potential obstacles that may be encountered and the manifold ways in which they might be met. It is a volume that may be consumed by the specialist, who may identify even further unanswered questions, or the perplexed generalist, who may dip in and out to marvel at Brexit’s complexities or seek clarification on an isolated issue.
John Cotter is a Lecturer in law at the School of Law, Keele University, UK