The 2019 UK General Election awarded the Conservatives a majority of 80 seats, which means that they have a mandate to approve of the Third Reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. If it passes on Friday, Britain will leave the EU on January 31st 2020. The transition period that follows lasts until January 31st 2021, and the British Government will use this time to negotiate a free trade agreement with Brussels.
There was little discussion of the prospect of a no-deal Brexit during the election, although Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon brought it up during one of the leadership debates. If the UK Government fails to negotiate a free trade pact in one year, it will have to leave the EU without a deal and trade with Brussels on WTO rules.
The Withdrawal Agreement allows room for manoeuvre as the UK has the option of extending the transition period up until July 2021, but the Prime Minister would have to decide to proceed with an extended transition in July 2020. He reassured voters that he is capable of negotiating a satisfactory trade deal by December 2020. He surprised many by managing to remove the Irish backstop from May’s original Withdrawal Agreement and securing a deal that pleases all sides. But the odds of securing a trade agreement by the end of next year are slim.
The EU is notoriously slow at negotiating trade deals. The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Canada took seven years to negotiate and was almost thwarted when the French-speaking Belgian region of Wallonia demanded safeguards on labour, environmental and consumer standards.
Earlier this year, Brussels’ trade agreement with South America was finally implemented after twenty years of negotiations.
Considering Nigel Farage agreed to withdraw Brexit Party candidates from seats that the Tories needed to win on the premise that Boris will not extend the transition period beyond December 2020, there is pressure on the Prime Minister to ensure that trade negotiations are completed by then. As The Guardian’s Darren Loucaides argues, the Brexit Party leader’s decision helped secure the Conservatives’ landslide. To betray his promise to voters would result in Boris losing huge swathes of support. This means he will have to deploy every tactic possible to ensure the EU meets Britain’s deadline.
The Prime Minister struggled to threaten a no-deal Brexit on Brussels because there was no majority for it before December, but parliamentary arithmetic is the one tactic Boris can use to force the EU to speed up negotiations. He can deploy the no-deal threat knowing there is a mandate for it now.
He should remind Brussels that preparations for a no-deal Brexit are in place. Michael Gove told Conservative Party activists at its October conference that Britain is ready for no-deal. Health Secretary Matt Hancock also created a trade and readiness unit to ensure the smooth delivery of medical supplies if the UK quits the EU without a deal.
The EU is fearful of the disruption a no-deal Brexit can cause. This is particularly true in Ireland as Dublin exports 90 percent of its agri-food products to Britain. Therefore, the Prime Minister knows Brussels is eager for a deal to avoid economic chaos.
Since the 2019 election outcome, there has already been goodwill among European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to agree a deal. The latter has suggested that a ‘bare bones’ trade agreement is possible between both sides if a full trade deal cannot be negotiated in time. Their willingness to cooperate is something Boris should take advantage of.
If the EU is serious about avoiding a no-deal Brexit, they should at least agree a ‘bare bones’ deal before December 2020. Either way, a Tory majority has changed everything and it is the most useful tactic the Prime Minister has to his advantage now.