Now that Boris Johnson is officially the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, his focus turns from talking about how to steer the UK out of its Brexit dilemma to actually fulfilling those promises. Carrying out his ideas will prove difficult in a parliament that consistently voted down a number of options put forth by Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May. He believes that he has the right plan to navigate the situation, however, and outlined part of it in his July 21 column published in The Telegraph. Every week, Johnson authors pieces laying out his ideas for the UK and, pertinently, how to handle the looming autumn deadline for leaving the EU.
Johnson’s article titled “We need the ‘can do’ spirit of 1960s America to help us get out of the EU” compared the ongoing Brexit struggle with that of the American Apollo space program which successfully put men on the moon. While those parallels may seem far-fetched, the new premier relates the challenges NASA overcame with the technical and logistical problems of leaving the EU.
“At its core, the problem with leaving the EU is technical and logistical,” Johnson wrote. “In order to come out of the EU customs union, and to maintain frictionless trade across the border in Northern Ireland (and indeed at Calais and elsewhere) we will need ways of checking goods for rules of origin, and whether they conform to the right standards, and whether or not they have been smuggled – but we have to do it away from the border, because no one can accept border controls in Northern Ireland.”
His elaboration on the Northern Ireland component is critical, as no one – neither party, side, or citizen of any allegiance – wishes to see a return to a divided Ireland. Among the Brexit catastrophe, Ireland is perhaps one of the only things everyone is in agreement on. Getting to that point, however, is up for contention. Under May’s deal negotiated with EU leaders, there would be the so-called ‘Irish Backstop.’ Johnson, his rival Foreign Minister, Jeremy Hunt, and many in Parliament would like to see the backstop option completely removed, as they fear it would continue the UK’s reliance on the EU. In order for the backstop to work, the UK would have to remain within the EU’s single market and customs union.
Johnson’s goal, however, is to summon that 1960’s spirit, wield modern technology, and overcome the Irish backstop problem by negotiating a free trade agreement with the EU. Doing so will require winning over those he called ‘technological pessimists’. The inability for these people to grasp that a technological solution might be possible is the very obstacle that prevents it from working. If only they believed, as NASA did decades ago, then the UK could quite easily solve its own moon problem.
“It is absurd that we have even allowed ourselves to be momentarily delayed by these technical issues. If they could use hand-knitted computer code to make a frictionless re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere in 1969, we can solve the problem of frictionless trade at the Northern Irish border,” Johnson lamented.
Under his leadership, the UK will form a free trade agreement with the EU. Depending on the contents of any such deal, it could essentially leave most trade untouched from pre-Brexit conditions. As long as imports and exports can flow freely across the Ireland – Northern Ireland border and throughout the rest of the UK, disaster could be considered averted.
The EU is not the only trade deal he is working on; Johnson has not even been in office for a week yet, but already he has opened communication lines with both the US and New Zealand. In preparation for the October 31 exit from the EU, he is moving quickly to solidify economic partnerships to stimulate slipping UK markets. According to US President Donald Trump, discussions about a “very substantial” agreement are already taking place, which he estimated would boost trade by three to five times.
Despite his promises and even his efforts to bring about new trade agreements with nations across the globe, Johnson will be hindered by two hard facts. First, the UK is not permitted to sign any trade deal until it officially leaves the EU. Until that point, it is still beholden to EU governance and the agreements in place by the union. So even if the new premier manages to strike accords with the US and New Zealand by October, they wouldn’t have an immediate effect.
Secondly, trade deals simply do not happen overnight. These are some of the most comprehensive agreements between states and they will be analyzed, re-worked, and analyzed once again before the process is repeated an untold number of cycles. Furthermore, once the negotiators reach amicable deals, they then must convince their governments to accept them, which is no easy task in polarized bodies such as the US Congress and British Parliament.
As points of comparison, the EU and Canada took seven years to reach a suitable deal, while the EU and South America took two decades. Discussions between the EU and US never even amounted to a deal, but former US President Barack Obama estimated that it would take ten years. While it’s true that arrangements with the EU might take longer because of its constitution of many nations, the process will not be magically smooth with just the UK.
In the end, Johnson is probably accurate to say that free trade deals would remove the need for an Irish backstop, but calling upon the spirit of 1960’s America won’t necessarily expedite the process.