OPN Boris Johnson
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson Image Credit: AP

Those who flocked to London’s Parliament Square on January 31 to celebrate their nation’s freedom from European Union constraints may discover that Britain’s independence is more pipedream than reality in today’s global village where big powers call the shots.

The winds of change blow gently during the 11-month transition period that ends on December 31. Hope that freedom will deliver greater prosperity, more funding for the ailing National Health Service, a fortified police force and a cap on pesky job-snatching immigrants still permeates the air.

For the first time in 47 years, the UK is able to negotiate trade deals with any nation on earth. Among prospective partners in the government’s sights are the United States, the EU and Japan which has agreed to work towards an “ambitious, high standard” trade agreement.

Sounds positive in theory but such deals traditionally take years to cement and worse, the relationship between London and Brussels has not only become decidedly frosty, EU negotiators are concerned that Boris Johnson’s imposed December 31 deadline is unrealistic.

Among the many topics Britain must thrash out with its largest trading partner are fishing rights, food standards, intelligence/data sharing, taxation, visas and the status of Europeans residing in the UK as well as Britons living in EU states.

Johnson was bombarded with warnings not to proceed which he ignored on the grounds that Huawei is way ahead of its competitors in terms of technology and pricing.

- Linda S. Heard, British columnist

Unfortunately, the gloves have already come off and how!

To quote the Telegraph’s Europe Editor Peter Foster “EU member states are hardening their demands for ‘status quo’ access to UK fishing grounds after Brexit…as fears grow that fundamental differences on the shape of the future EU-UK relationship could now crash the talks within months.

Moreover, France’s President Emmanuel Macron has insisted that London abides by EU rules and regulations as a condition of any trade deal which Johnson was quick to rule out placing him on a collision course with his EU counterparts.

The future status of Gibraltar is also a looming issue of contention. According to the Observer, the EU now supports Spain’s territorial claim on the Rock, a position incorporated within the bloc’s opening negotiation paper that gives Madrid the power to exclude Gibraltar from a trade deal.

Oh well, never mind! If push comes to shove the UK can still trade with the EU under less advantageous WTO rules and let us not forget the super-duper massive Gold Star US-UK fast-tracked trade deal in the offing…Or is it?

The UK prime minister once the apple of President Trump’s eye has fallen from grace leaving prospects for any deal up in the air. Johnson’s ‘crime’ was to open the door to Huawei’s limited participation in building his country’s 5G telecoms network against furious opposition from the White House that views the mega Chinese tech company as a threat to US security.

Johnson was bombarded with warnings not to proceed which he ignored on the grounds that Huawei is way ahead of its competitors in terms of technology and pricing — and furthermore would be restricted to bidding for “non-core elements” of the project that would obviate any security-risks.

Red lights began flashing when Mike Pence was asked whether the UK’s decision could be a ‘deal-breaker” and replied “We’ll see” but few expected Trump to go on the rampage in what has been described as his “apoplectic” call to his buddy Boris that was terminated when the US president rudely slammed down the phone. Brexit’s chief instigator Nigel Farage who remains in Trump’s good books admits to being worried.

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Boris is now wedged between a rock and a hard place. If he U-turns on Huawei he risks being dubbed Trump’s lapdog, hardly in keeping with the UK’s renewed independent spirit. And if he fails to do so, given the US president’s vindictive nature, Britain coveted trade deal could be pushed to the back of the queue or quashed altogether. For now, Japan is hot to trot but a nod from the US president could cool its ardour.

There is no getting away from the fact that in this day and age big is beautiful. Nations without clout are liable to being pushed around. Unfortunately, Britain has forfeited its influence within the EU and lost its unofficial role within Europe as a representative of US interests. Thus, London’s usefulness to Washington is diminished.

Boris Johnson has a lot on his plate to contend with over the coming months, not least fending off demands from the SNP backed by Scotland’s Parliament for a second independence referendum that in principle would permit Edinburgh to rejoin the EU. One is left to speculate whether the euphoria displayed by nationalistic “Rule Britannia” flag wavers on December 31 2019 will be in evidence on December 31, 2020 and on that your guess is as good as mine.

— Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist and guest television commentator with a focus on the Middle East.