After three and a half years, there is finally closure. There will be no second UK referendum. The country will leave the European Union in January, after Boris Johnson’s resounding electoral triumph.
The decisive nature of the result was widely welcomed by EU leaders at their December summit in Brussels, who have spent much of the last two years becoming increasingly exasperated by the failure of the UK political class to articulate what it wants from the Brexit talks and make a decision.
“We have been waiting for more than one year to know what Britain wants. Now we have clarity,” the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said at the EU summit on Friday.
“The EU must now focus on building a new close, fair and lasting partnership with Britain. It is in our common interest,” said Guy Verhofstadt, the chair of the European parliament’s Brexit Steering group.
But as one battle ends, a host of new fronts open up. The first challenge is the second, more detailed, stage of Brexit negotiations on a future relationship that will start after lawmakers pass the Withdrawal Agreement.
Johnson has been deliberately vague during the campaign, promising little more than to ‘Get Brexit Done’. The Conservative manifesto ruled out extending transition beyond 2020 but it does not discuss what will happen if a trade deal is not secured by then. A ‘no deal’ Brexit will not happen in January, but it is not completely off the table.
“We simply do not know what kind of Brexit Boris Johnson wants,” said Professor Anand Menon, the director of the UK in a Changing Europe academic thinktank, which criticised the Conservatives for making “unclear, unfeasible, misleading and missing statements” during the campaign.
Time has been against the UK government ever since it triggered Article 50. We can expect Johnson to publish a plan for the next phase of negotiations before Christmas.
Barnier has repeatedly warned that the chances of the ‘Canada-plus’ style deal, which Johnson has talked about being agreed and ratified are almost zero, and that only a bare-bones ‘no tariffs, no quotas’ trade deal would be obtainable within the eleven-month window.
“Our biggest sticking point will be that we have to do these negotiations very quickly,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters.
“We are ready to defend the European interest,” European Council President Charles Michel told reporters. He added that the so-called ‘level playing field’, under which the UK commits not to undercut the EU on regulatory standards, will remain a core priority of EU negotiators.
But Johnson’s 70 seat majority means he can do what he wants at home.
Although he promised that the post-Brexit transition period would not be extended beyond next December, there is nothing to stop him changing his mind now, even if that forces Brexit party leader Nigel Farage to make good on his threat to return from his spring plans as President Trump’s warm-up act on the US presidential campaign trail.
Whither the Union
If the UK’s exit from one Union is now assured, the potential collapse of its own has moved closer.
The pattern of results followed the 2016 referendum result. In Scotland, the Scottish National Party won 49 of the 59 seats and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has already announced that her government will next week publish plans for a second referendum on Scottish independence. It is hard to see how Johnson could legitimately deny one.
But Scotland is not the only country facing constitutional upheaval. In Northern Ireland, pro-Unionist parties won only 8 out of 18 seats, the first time since the creation of the Republic that Irish nationalist and republican parties have won a majority.
The Democratic Unionist Party, which opposes the Irish protocol in Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement, fell from 10 to 8 seats.
The electoral turmoil is no surprise. The protocol will establish a new regulatory border between Britain and Northern Ireland for four years.
This will require new customs checks on the island of Ireland, and for Northern Ireland to leave the EU’s customs union and come out of the single market in all goods, apart from agri-food products and industrial products.
In 2025, the Northern Ireland government and elected assembly – which has not been sitting for nearly two years – would then choose whether to keep the new arrangement.
The detail of the Irish protocol is still to be worked out. Johnson has repeatedly stated that there will be no new checks on goods going from Northern Ireland to Britain, telling businesses in Ulster that they would “absolutely not” be required to make any customs declarations.
That claim, however, is contradicted by a UK government paper which stated that “at minimum, exit summary declarations will be required when goods are exported from Northern Ireland to Great Britain in order to meet EU obligations” and that “the withdrawal agreement has the potential to separate Northern Ireland in practice from whole swathes of the UK’s internal market”.
That risks unpicking the fragile peace settlement in Ulster and increasing demands for a united Ireland.
Dan Hannan, the Conservative MEP and staunch Brexiteer, has already suggested that a constitutional convention is needed to move towards a truly federal UK. That may be the only way to save the Union.
Having campaigned on the basis of a wafer-thin manifesto that promised little more than to ‘Get Brexit Done’, Johnson now has his mandate and the blankest of canvasses to work with.
But if the existential battle of the UK’s EU membership has been settled, new battles at home and abroad will begin within months.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]