By Arab News
By Andrew Hammond*
As the UK votes in parliamentary elections on Thursday, EU leaders will be holding their last summit of the year. Brexit is not formally on the agenda, but European capitals are keenly awaiting the election result as a pointer to Britain’s departure.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s campaign slogan is “Get Brexit Done,” and he asserts that the election therefore amounts to a choice between stability provided by the Tories, and the chaos of an anti-Conservative coalition and a new EU referendum.
This mantra is as misleading as it is simplistic. Leaving the EU next month would only be the start of new negotiations on topics from transport and fisheries to financial services and data transfer, which will represent a new order of complexity.
The transition phase proposed from Feb. 1 to the end of 2020 is therefore not likely to be nearly long enough — despite claims to the contrary by Johnson and other leading Tory politicians; Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid remarkably said on Thursday there was “not a single doubt in my mind” that a final comprehensive deal could be “agreed within months, and we can get it through Parliament in 2020.”
The enormous odds against this are why some European politicians, such as Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, have proposed a five-year transition period. The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has said a “bare bones” agreement may be the best that can be hoped for in less than a year.
The reason time is tight is that Brussels is not allowed by law to conduct formal discussions on a new trade deal until the UK has ratified a withdrawal agreement, when the EU can approve a joint, next-phase negotiating mandate. That could take weeks, meaning formal discussions may not begin until spring; and because a deal would have to be ratified, negotiations realistically need to be completed by autumn.
Nevertheless, few in London or Brussels are prepared to talk openly about a transition extension. Johnson has made it a central election pledge not to extend the end-2020 deadline because many of his Brexiteer allies are opposed to continuing significant payments to the EU, regardless of the benefits.
This threatens a new “cliff edge” and, in effect, the renewed threat of a no-deal Brexit. Indeed Javid refused to rule this out, threatening a re-run of the political and economic uncertainties of 2019.
If the reality of no-deal dawns in about a year’s time, Brussels and London would almost certainly have to return to the negotiating table, with a new set of incentives and considerable urgency.
Outside a transition period, the negotiating process for a final, comprehensive deal could become significantly more difficult, with the same trade-offs as before, including free movement of people versus the scope of access to the European Single Market, but with added time pressure if the UK economy is hurting more than that of the EU. Another factor that may make a final, comprehensive deal significantly more difficult is that it would require EU unanimity, so just one objecting state could veto it.
Johnson’s “Get Brexit Done” mantra is therefore a huge distortion of the truth. Far from Brexit being complete by Jan. 31, detailed negotiations would follow that will shape UK and international politics for years to come.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics