Since 2010 the United Kingdom has contended with four general elections, three Prime Ministers, two referendums, one coalition and a period of minority government. Finally, the country will have Brexit finalized and everything will change. Maybe.
It’s understandable that a country which is sick and tired of such a never-ending limbo situation would consider Brexit to be good news, but the bad news is that uncertainty is not over yet.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit Plan
Boris Johnson won the UK’s latest snap elections on the promise to “get Brexit done” and “unleash Britain’s potential” by January 31. He is asking the new members of parliament to work hard before Christmas and to back his Withdrawal Agreement Bill before introducing it to the House of Lords by the end of this year.
The aim would be to get Johnson’ deal completed in time for Brexit to happen by January the 31st, and with the large Conservative majority in the House of Commons, it should be fairly straightforward to pass. However, even though there is a sense of clarity now all around the UK regarding Brexit, dilemmas still remain.
The Bill passing through the parliament should be considered as the first piece of law that lays the framework for Brexit happening. The next steps will get complicated as the PM is planning a detailed template for consultations with the EU supposed to start right after February and supposed to end by December 2020. This will be the hardest part.
Boris Johnson gambled his career on Brexit and won many people’s trust, as a result he changed the political landscape of the country. The new blue-dominated Tory map drawn up by his stunning victory will not last forever, though; Johnson knows voters lent him their support on this occasion, but he must give back exactly what he promised: especially in terms of delivering Brexit.
What Comes Next?
Johnson’s focus on Brexit makes it very likely to happen. As Professor Ian Begg of the London School of Economics put it, “the elections drew the line under the withdrawal and that itself makes a significant change to what happens next, because instead of endless speculations about whether Brexit will or will not happen, I would be 99,9% confident that by the end of January Britain will have left the EU.”
Once Johnson’s bill is backed by the parliament the main issues will be decided on: the Irish border, citizens’ rights, the role of the European Court of Justice and, last but not least, the money, meaning how much money the UK must pay to leave the EU.
“What I think the public has not really understood yet is that there is then a huge new process of thinking about the future relationship which is going to drag on,” professor Begg added, explaining that he is not sure Mr Johnson is going to complete it by the end of 2020.
Johnson’s Paradoxical Position
On one side, the PM is now stronger and powerful due to the fact that the outcome of the election is a far bigger majority than anybody expected. This new position means a bigger room for maneuver to do things which he might not be able to do with a very tight majority. In particular he is no longer subject of the pressure from the ultras, the hard-line Euro-sceptic Brexiteers who won’t accept any compromise.
On the other hand, Johnson now has to face the European players of this game and all the national interests of every member state and come out with the deal that is best for the UK. Negotiating a trade deal with the EU could take weeks, considering that all the remaining 27 member states and the European parliament have to agree and will likely inject their own demands and concerns. Time is short, but talks are unlikely to wrap up quickly.
One potentially positive aspect is that because the UK belonged to the EU, it used to speak the same negotiating language and “because we start with identical trade position it is far easier to do a deal than with Canada, Vietnam or Korea,” as Begg explains. This means that matters could progress more rapidly than expected.
Every European country may likely demand its goods to be protected in some way. For example, you could expect Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to say “yes, but we demand closure on the status of Gibraltar.” Alternately, what if Italy wants more done to protect Parma ham. All these debates could come up during the negotiations and clash with the UK’s hope of getting as much access as possible for its own goods and services to the EU market.
Past Mistakes Are Key Lessons For What To Avoid In The Future
Johnson must work to avoid former Prime Minister Theresa May’s mistakes and learn from the past fiascos surrounding Brexit. A report for the Institute for Government authored by May’s former special adviser Raoul Ruparel on how the UK can successfully exit the EU analyzes various mistakes May made in her negotiations and how Johnson can learn from them.
First of all, “the UK failed to put forward a plan,” the report reads. This first mistake is a key lesson: the government claims it wants a free trade agreement with the EU by the end of 2020 but, to have any hope of obtaining it, the UK government needs to think about how it wants to run those negotiations. Ruparel brings up a useful mantra in this regard: “control the process, control the outcome.”
Secondly, Johnson has to consider how, in the past, the EU was setting the agenda and putting the opening demands on the table. The UK was always in a position of arguing other member states down, rather than starting proactively with its own demands. Ruparel argues that success is more likely if the UK adopts a more proactive approach and establishes a clear line of communication and public support and involvement throughout the process.
Negotiations should not be a solipsistic exercise. Theresa May did them largely alone, or maybe was left alone. Johnson must go to Brussels with a team of MPs—and we know Michael Gove has his luggage ready and packed to fly to Belgium—but also external stakeholders and diplomats. Brexit should not look like a closed-door policy. Ruparel also suggests that, even if Johnson now owns a commanding majority in parliament, he still needs to transform it into a long-lasting coalition outside the House of Commons by ensuring wide support on the way to the divorce from the EU. It may be a harsh path with difficult decisions to be made, so the public will appreciate being kept in the loop and spoken with forthrightly by Johnson.
Forging A New United Kingdom
Boris Johnson changed the political map of the UK, but what is he planning for the future of the once-again independent nation that will emerge from this revolution?Answering this question requires an explanation of what “global Britain” was supposed to be about in terms of serving as a starting point for thinking about Britain’s future role in the world. When this project first came out, Theresa May’s intention of creating an “outward-looking country” that would interface with the international community effectively won major support from Brexiteers including her foreign secretary at the time, Boris Johnson.
UK Conservatism’s project of realizing a global Britain outside the European Union was about connecting with old friends in Europe and North America, but also finding new allies and a “new place itself” outside the restrictive confines of the EU. The manifesto was based on pillars such as: negotiating a free trade agreement with the EU and bilateral trade agreements with new partners. With strong support from the United States and US President Donald Trump who calls Johnson “the British Trump,” America is waiting for the UK to take back control of its decision-making and open its trade doors wider to the United States of America. Johnson has to make his voters happy and Trump; missteps will not be allowed.
Global Britain? Tory Voters: No Thanks
Even though Boris Johnson talked frequently about “global Britain” in past years, and still does at times, he understands that his electorate is not enthused about a universalized open-Britain concept. “There is a very clear disjunction between what people that voted for Brexit expect” and what the Tories and their leader are talking about. People didn’t vote for free trade markets as they only voted for protecting Britain’s sovereignty; they were not interested in a deregulated market,” explains professor John Curtice of the University of Strathclyde. In terms of immigration, Curtice points out that Conserative voters are not worried about “the level but the lack of control.”
The new foreign policy agenda the PM is going to deliver has yet to be clarified. Getting rid of restrictive European rules and opening to a new global scenario without turning off voters is the big challenge the British government faces going forward. The Conservatives have made it clear that their future plan means leaving the customs union and the single market.
This means that the new government will have to develop a strategy around deregulation and, as it was announced during last campaign, look for a “better homegrown alternative to the overbearing bureaucracy and inefficient EU regulations.” If put into a single book, the EU legislative code would amount to more than 168,000 pages, a length which has nearly doubled between 2005 and 2015. If stacked into a single pile, the rule book would be taller than Nelson’s Column in London’s Trafalgar Square, and it is 169 feet 3 inches high. That’s a lot of regulations.
The Institute of Economic Affair has estimated the total cost to the UK economy of EU regulatory compliance may be as high as £120 billion a year and suggested turning the Department for Exiting the EU into a Department for Deregulation.The challenge would be to begin dismantling and liberalizing regulations and restrictions the UK was compelled to accept as part of being in the EU and go from there.
But what does “liberalize” precisely mean? Is Britain becoming a low-tax, low-regulation and low public spending paradise in the same manner as the Southeast Asian city state of Singapore?
The idea of a Singapore-on-Thames has several admirers, including Johnson himself and Micheal Gove. This model was lauded by many Tories who see it as a positive outcome of Brexit that would draw enormous investment back into the UK. Shifting headquarters away from the UK to Singapore has become increasingly common, with the British company Dyson, for example, relocating to Singapore in the past.
Johnson and Gove’s vision of Singapore-on-Thames is unlikely to resonate with Brexit voters, however and is also unlikely to become the dominant vision going forward.
“I don’t think anybody voted for Singapore,” Begg explains. “This story is very close to fake news and it is remotely likely,” he added stating that Britain has a social model which is pretty close to the European average … It is not the American social model and there is no intention inside the UK to move to an American or Chinese social model.”
The UK has a publicly-funded health care model, the expectation of a rising minimum wage and a social safety net that makes it quite unlike Singapore or the American or Chinese model that some might envision. All these ambiguities are supposed to end when negotiations will start and Johnson’s plan will show up.
‘No Deal’ Is Still On The Table
The tensions of Global Britain and Singapore-on-Thames could be considered as merely speculation at this point, but one big contradiction in Johnson’ plan really exists. According to what Sir Ivan Rogers, Britain former envoy to the EU, told the Observer, the PM “wants the UK to diverge from EU rules while also wanting a comprehensive trade deal in place, in just a year’s time. But it’s because you say you have no intention of remaining aligned that the negotiation will take the time.”
The negotiations between EU and UK need to produce a final agreement by the end of June 2020. By that precise time, the UK could make the decision of extending the transition period by one or two years even if Johnson has made it clear that he has no intention of asking for any form of extension. The government wants to leave by the end of December 2020, and this brings up the best-case-scenario of leaving with a deal or the worst-case-scenario of leaving without a deal.
Johnson recently announced that his deal, which supposed to be approved by the end of this year, would make it illegal for the parliament to extend the transition period, opening a conflict and further points of tension with the EU. Risks that these barriers could grow persist in both camps therefore the next phase could run into the ground, raising the chance the UK leaves without a deal and making it a very real possibility.