Brexit after Johnson’s victory

Glyn Ford says Johnson will be torn between machismo and pragmatism over Brexit

December 12th delivered a solid majority for Johnson and the Conservative Party. All 632 Tory candidates were required to sign a pledge to back Johnson’s Brexit Deal in the House of Commons by voting for the Withdrawal Agreement if elected. The process is already underway and will be concluded well in time for the United Kingdom to leave the EU on January 31st. Despite the 54-46 vote for Remain over Leave parties there is no question of the House of Lords blocking the passage of the Bill with ‘Getting Brexit Done’ virtually the entirety of Johnson’s election campaign. Remain and a second referendum were always deliquescent demands. The future for the internationalist left will be REFORM, REVOLT, REJOIN.

We are now in a ‘transition’ period until 31st December 2020 when the UK is outside the EU and its institutions but remains tied to EU law and regulation. This period, now dramatically shrunk by May and Johnson’s earlier Brexit travails and the consequent delays, was designed to provide the space for the EU & UK to negotiate a Free Trade Agreement (FTA). This is now an impossible calendar unless the Tories settle for a minimal ‘dirty’ deal limited to goods plus freedom of movement for business, leaving services to be tidied up later. The decision not to seek any further extension from Brussels means chronology strangling content, and resuscitates the prospect, at worst, of a ‘No Deal’ Brexit and, at best, the most brutal Brexit with all the consequences that follow.

We have to hope Johnson continues to be duplicitous and treacherous. For the only way out is to do an interim deal – rather than transitional deal – for services, particularly financial services, that maintains the status quo while the base FTA is filled out for additional agreements.

The timing will be tight even for a ‘dirty’ deal, and all the more so as the UK seeks to sharply diverge from current regulatory alignment with the EU as Britain seeks to model tax, economy and labour market with Singapore not Sweden. In Brussels the negotiations – to the great disappointment of Phil Hogan, the Irish Commissioner responsible for Internal Trade – will be led by Michel Barnier reporting directly to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. He will strike a hard bargain. Von der Leyen hopes the European Council will give her a flexible negotiating mandate. She may be disappointed. If the UK wants to re-open long closed chapters, so may countries like Poland and the rest. There is a real prospect that the two sides may not be able to make and ratify any Agreement and what is absolutely clear is this won’t happen in the mixed competence areas around investment and transport, which require not only ratification by qualified majority in the Council and by the European Parliament (EP), but unanimity in Council and also by the EP and the 27 Member States’ National Parliaments plus, in some cases, Regional Parliaments. This ratification process in itself in the past has taken up to five years to complete.

Johnson will be torn between machismo and pragmatism. The golden vistas of an FTA with the USA beckon. As of 1st February, the UK is free to enter into negotiations with potential trade partners, but few – and especially Washington – will sign on the dotted line until the UK’s future trade relationship with the EU is clear. An ideological Johnson will close early negotiations with the EU to reap the supposed rewards of Washington and their chlorinated chicken. All will prove more gruelling than anticipated. Japan, Canada and Korea, who already have FTAs with the EU, will not be offering their current terms to London. They will be looking for deals leaning more in their favour as they lose the economies of scale of dealing with the EU. The situation is not helped by the fact that Whitehall will be struggling with capacity problems, with scarce officials capable of trade negotiations after more than forty years of the UK having no competence in trade matters.

Johnson’s majority gives him the full five years, save for some extraordinary event. However, the promise is hidden in plain sight with the anticipation of the beginning of the end of the English Empire with the break-up of the UK. On December 12th the Tory writ ran neither in Scotland nor Northern Ireland. The Independence Referendum in Scotland in 2014 was intended to be a once in a generation event, but that logic is demolished by Brexit. One key argument used to hold back the late swell of support for independence was that a ‘yes’ vote would leave Scotland marooned outside the EU. Now Brexit sees Scotland, that voted overwhelmingly remain, dragged out of the European Union against its will. The fact that the SNP won 48 out of 59 seats in Scotland provides an unanswerable mandate for a second referendum, and will be impossible to deny if revalidated in the 2021 Scottish Assembly elections.

On the island of Ireland the 1998 ‘Good Friday Agreement’ provided for, in appropriate circumstances, a referendum on Irish unification. Johnson’s EU Deal chooses to draw a regulatory and customs border down the middle of the Irish Sea rather than between the Republic of Ireland and the North. This creates an economic union that alongside the social changes in the south makes an inexorable logic of future political union. The triggering made all the more predictable when for the first time ever the nationalist parties just out-polled the Unionists in the North.

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