Peter Kenyon reviews the consequences of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU
Prime Minister Boris Johnson surrendered the UK’s vote and voice in the European Union on 31 January 2020. Some confusion is already reported at border posts around the now 27-member state economic giant, with UK citizens bemoaning queues at non-EU, EEA, Switzerland passport control. An irate Brexiteer at Schiphol Airport in February was reported as saying: “This isn’t the Brexit I voted for.”
Disgruntled travellers are not the only ones who will be echoing that sentiment as events unfold over the rest of 2020.
Industry, finance, science, academia and fisher folk (to name just a few) are demanding clarity from Johnson’s government about future relations. They will continue to be disappointed. In the meantime, nervous investors are doing what has been predictable since 2016 – moving to the continent.
This destructive ambiguity is what the new leader of the Labour Party has got to focus on: the negative consequences in terms of jobs and investment, loss of influence and the UK’s diminished stature in an increasingly interdependent world must be spelt out. Johnson having “Got Brexit Done” will blame Brussels for any suggestion that actually he has not delivered. The Leader of the Opposition must restore rapid rebuttal.
A new Business Secretary has been appointed by Johnson. Alok Sharma has his work cut out, taking over from lacklustre Andrea Leadsom, as secretary of state for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and combines that job with that of president of the next UN Climate Change conference in Glasgow in November 2020. At the time of writing he has not uttered a word in public on either brief.
Whitehall’s short-lived Department for Exiting the EU has been shut down now that Phase 1 of Surrender is complete. Responsibility for negotiating future relations with the EU-27 (Surrender Phase 2) has notionally been shifted to the Foreign Office under Dominic Raab, but there have been reports that the Cabinet Office under Michael Gove will have a role, and the overriding suspicion is that each step will be decided by mission control under Johnson’s Senior Special Advisor, the unelected Dominic Cummings of the illegally-funded Leave campaign.
Meanwhile, in Brussels, negotiator par excellence Michel Barnier is close to securing agreement on a comprehensive negotiating mandate from the EU-27 heads of government. So every time Johnson seeks to point the finger at Brussels, Labour will need to call him out. The EU-27 heads of government may meet in Brussels. But they are not based there. Instead they come from Helsinki, Stockholm, Tallinn, Riga, Copenhagen, Vilnius, Dublin, Berlin, den Haag, Warsaw, Prague, Luxembourg, Paris, Bratislava, Vienna, Budapest, Ljubljana, Zagreb, Bucharest, Sofia, Rome, Madrid, Lisbon, Athens, Valletta, Nicosia, as well as the federal capital of Belgium.
The main sticking point between those 27 capitals and London is well known: regulatory alignment or a level playing field in future trade. At the time of writing the EU-27 have still to agree their own position on this aspect of the talks. In plain language, if Johnson wants a free-trade agreement (FTA) with the EU, he has to accept EU rules. He can huff and puff as much as Cummings demands, but he will not blow the EU-27 house down. Since Johnson’s election victory on 12 December last year, reference has been made to an EU-Canada FTA and latterly an EU-Australia FTA, which is highly illustrative of Johnson’s flailing around – as there is no such EU agreement with Australia.
The best available guide to EU-27 thinking currently available is encapsulated in a European Parliament (EP) resolution. The resolution repeats calls for the UK to align itself as closely as possible with the EU by citing the need for that famous “level playing field”, which should ensure “equivalent standards in social, labour, environmental, competition and state aid policies, including through a robust and comprehensive framework on competition and state aid control”.
For avid followers of UK/EU relations, this begs the question why did the UK ever consider surrendering its veto and its voice in the EU institutions under former prime minister David Cameron, let alone actually do it as happened at the end of January. It is one which the bulk of the UK media is reluctant to pose, and is anathema to Johnson and his government. But that day of reckoning is not far away. A critical date is set out in the EP resolution concerning fishing rights: any EU-UK free-trade deal must be conditional on a prior agreement on fisheries by June 2020. This poses a particular challenge for the Labour Party. Does it stick to its agreed EU policy on close alignment? Or does it succumb to a temptation to echo Johnson’s blame game during Phase 2 of his “Get Brexit Done” plan?
Either way, brace yourselves for another stream of hatred directed by Johnson and his supporters in the media at Brussels – oops, the EU-27 – during Phase 2.