Boris Johnson is facing into a massive few days for his Brexit strategy with this week’s Queen’s Speech and EU Summit. Since he became UK prime minister, he has repeatedly promised to “get Brexit done” by October 31, but this rests on a grand political fallacy.
While the prime minister implies leaving the EU this month would put an end to the UK’s Brexit saga, this flies in the face of reality. Moreover, his ‘no-holds-barred, scorched earth’ strategy risks polarising a divided nation even more.
Far from concluding the more than three year-long Brexit drama that has engulfed the nation, leaving the EU with or without a deal this month would only be the start of a new phase of negotiations that will help define UK and international politics well into the 2020s.
Take the example of a ‘no-deal Brexit’ which will not just mean that London will automatically leave the EU without many, it not all, of the rules that regulate the UK’s relationships with the Brussels-based club, but also many economic relationships with the rest of the world too inasmuch as these are underpinned by trade treaties that the EU has agreed with nations from Asia-Pacific to the Americas.
The current transition phase proposed of less than two years is not likely to be nearly long enough. Yet neither London nor Brussels is prepared to talk openly about this, for now at least, which misleads the public.
Quite aside from the economic shock that such a hard, disorderly exit is predicted to entail, what some Brexiteers fail to acknowledge is the way that such a UK exit from the EU would dominate domestic politics for years. So much so that the rest of Johnson’s domestic policy agenda may potentially be completely sidelined, especially given increased political strains between England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales.
If the reality of no-deal dawns in November, both Brussels and London would almost certainly need to return to the negotiating table in the weeks that follow, but with a new set of incentives. As of November 1, the United Kingdom would no longer be within the so-called Article 50 process.
The ‘third country’
This will mean, officially speaking at least, that even a tweaked version of the Withdrawal deal negotiated by Theresa May would no longer be on the table. And Britain would be a ‘third country’ with the new EU Commission leadership which takes office this Autumn needing a new post-exit negotiating mandate from the EU-27.
Such a ‘no-deal’ exit would therefore just be the end of round 1 of Brexit as negotiations resume again. Such discussions could take significantly longer under a no-deal scenario than if Johnson secures a compromise deal and gets that through Parliament as at least there will then be an agreed framework for moving forwards to a final, comprehensive deal in a transition period.
Without a transition, the negotiating process could get significantly harder, with the same trade-offs as before, including that of free movement of people versus scope of access to the Single Market, but with potentially added time pressure if the UK economy is hurting more than that of the EU-27. One factor that may make concluding a final, comprehensive UK-EU deal significantly more difficult is that — outside of the Article 50 process which requires only a ‘qualified majority’ of states to ratify — EU-27 unanimity would be needed which risks one or two European states blocking agreement.
Beyond this no-deal scenario, there is of course a different future which sees Johnson secure a political breakthrough over the Irish backstop allowing him to potentially secure approval in Parliament for a modified version of May’s withdrawal deal. Yet, even here Brexit would be far from over, as the next phase of negotiations move mainly from the three core Article 50 issues — the financial settlement, citizen rights, and the Irish border — to the full spectrum of topics from transport and fisheries to financial services and data transfer which will collectively represent a new order of complexity to negotiate.
Take the example of converting the approximately 600-page Withdrawal agreement which will become much longer legal text if ratified and transformed into a free trade deal with many details the subject of long discussions as the Canadians found in their own seven-year discussions with Brussels to secure the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement. Even the less than 25-page political declaration that top-lines the future EU-UK relationship, will require intense negotiation as it is translated into hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of legal documentation.
In what may prove the most complex discussions for London since the United Kingdom joined the EU in the 1970s, the current transition phase proposed of less than two years is not likely to be nearly long enough. Hence why some European politicians, such as Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, have proposed a five-year period. Yet neither London nor Brussels is prepared to talk openly about this, for now at least, which misleads the public.
Taken overall, Johnson’s desire to get Brexit finalised by October 31 may make for a potentially eye-catching future election campaign slogan, but flies in the face of reality. Far from the UK’s exit being done this autumn, with or without a deal, years of complex, detailed negotiations would follow that will shape UK and international politics well into the 2020s.
— Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics