Brexit 2020: Words rule with two questions answered but plenty more to fight over

Brexit 2020: Words rule with two questions answered but plenty more to fight over

พีเทอร์ ไมตรี อึ๊งภากรณ์ เรื่อง

ภาพิมล หล่อตระกูล ภาพประกอบ

UK premier Boris Johnson has won a landslide and is now set to get Brexit “done”. Will he? It’s all about the words.


Taboo:  After Brexit the word is banned in the governmentTaboo:  After Brexit the word is banned in the government | Photo: Robbin Higgins (rights-free). Montage: Peter Ungphakorn

So, Prime Minister Boris Johnson now has a clear majority in the UK parliament to ensure Britain leaves the EU on January 31, 2020 when — we’re told — “Brexit” will become a taboo word for officials and government politicians.

Playing with words is totally consistent with an election campaign in which the prime minister and his candidates repeated “Get Brexit done” over and over without ever answering questions about what that meant. The result was a landslide victory on December 12, 2019, and Brexit will now be “done” because everyone is supposed to stop talking about it.

Except, of course, they almost certainly won’t. And even if the word itself is no longer mentioned in some circles, heated debates about how much influence the EU may have over Britain will not go away.

And while Johnson enjoyed a landslide in England, the picture was very different in Scotland, where the pro-Scottish independence nationalists won overwhelmingly, and in Northern Ireland, where moderate pro-Europeans saw some gains. How United this Kingdom will be a few years from now remains to be seen.

Suddenly, a lot has changed

Much has happened since that lull during the Easter break in April. Almost immediately political chaos was restored. Theresa May continued to battle unsuccessfully for her Withdrawal Agreement and was forced to resign as Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party on June 7, 2019.

Boris Johnson won the party’s July 22 election to replace her. As he sought to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement within weeks, he declared he’d rather “be dead in a ditch” than seek a delay to the already-postponed October 31 deadline for Britain to leave the EU.

Always over-optimistic about how much time would be needed, he was then forced to secure another delay until January 31, 2020. But Johnson did not die in a ditch or anywhere else.

Continued turmoil in parliament led to the December general election. Undaunted, he campaigned with simple words that many voters wanted to hear, brushing aside what they actually implied or whether he would be able to carry out his promises. This time it was three words: “get Brexit done”.

When he was asked in a televised election debate whether honesty was important, the audience laughed at him. (A website has been created to catalogue “the lies, falsehoods and misrepresentations of Boris Johnson and his government”.)

Those three words worked. Backed by strategists such as his controversial adviser Dominic Cummings, Johnson avoided difficult interviews, chose his own easy campaign activities, and won over crucial voters partly by convincing them that he could deliver Brexit after years of deadlock.

He told them he had managed to secure a new Withdrawal Agreement with the EU, in only a few weeks — “his” Withdrawal Agreement — even though everyone had said it would be impossible.

In fact most of it was unchanged from Theresa May’s version. The main difference was in the part dealing with the Irish border.

It now means that goods crossing between Great Britain and Northern Ireland will be checked, effectively creating a trade border down the Irish Sea between two parts of the United Kingdom. At the last minute Johnson had crossed a red line breaking a pledge he himself had made a few months earlier.

He said he had to call the General Election because MPs blocked his legislation to implement Withdrawal Agreement. The truth is MPs passed the first reading of the bill but refused to take it through the next stages within three days because they had only just received the 110-page legal text and needed more time to study it. Before that, it was the right-wing of Johnson’s own Conservative Party that had blocked Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement.


No matter. Enough voters were fed up with endless wrangling, and had no patience to follow the details in the arguments. Their perception of what was happening was moulded by the media, particularly television news, which focused on party-political fights, paying little attention to what the debate was actually about.

The Johnson camp exploited that. Their view was that talking about detail was a vote loser, even if detail is where the devil hides.

The election swung in constituencies across much of the north and part of midlands of England. Traditional supporters of the opposition Labour party had more faith in Johnson delivering Brexit than in Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s promises on health and public services.

Reluctantly, they had more faith in Johnson as person than in Corbyn himself. At least Johnson was clearer on Brexit than Labour’s ambivalent position.

Broadly, they wanted Brexit “done” because they felt neglected and alienated by the quarrels in Westminster.

They wanted to “take back control” from the EU in Brussels (even though the UK was part of the decision-making).

And they blamed the distraction of Brexit for inadequate investment and social services in their localities.

(The complexities of why many voters swung behind Johnson are still being analysed; this is not the place to go into detail.)

The upshot is that, yes, the UK will leave the EU on January 31, 2020, barring something catastrophic. So yes, Brexit will be “done” because, if Johnson has his way, no one will mention it again.

And yes, to all intents and purposes there will continue to be no visible border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. But perhaps at a price.

Two questions are now answered; many more are left in the air.

Unanswered questions

It’s clear Brexit won’t be “done” even if Johnson stops talking about it, preferring instead to focus on the future, on a “great new national project of building a deep, special and democratically accountable partnership with those nations we are proud to call our closest friends”. More words.

The May-Johnson Withdrawal Agreement only tackles the first Brexit step: the terms of separation, the money the UK has to pay the EU under its budget obligations and for continuing to use EU institutions during the transition (beginning February 1, 2020), the rights of EU and UK citizens in each others’ territories, and the arrangements for ensuring an invisible Irish border.

An accompanying non-binding revised political declaration sets out the bare bones of the future UK-EU relationship, which still has to be negotiated.

What lies ahead are:

  • Implementing the deal on the Irish border: setting up systems on the ground that apply the principles of the protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement
  • Negotiating the future relationship with the EU: in trade — goods, services (including such issues as mutual recognition of professional services) and intellectual property (simpler ways of operating between the UK and across the EU) — and also fishing, security, aviation, science research funding, data, nuclear energy, citizens’ rights and more
  • Negotiating future trade agreements with other countries, including those that have deals with the UK through the EU, which will be linked to what is agreed between the UK and EU

The first two tasks would need to be completed within months. Johnson wants the third done almost as quickly, particularly a deal with the US.

Brexit day kicks off a transition period which is supposed to finish at the end of 2020. The various delays mean that only 11 months will be available — less if ratification and other legal processes are included — for tasks that experts believe will take much longer.

The transition can be extended to the end of 2022, but both sides would have to agree to an extension by July 1, 2020, only five months into the transition.

Johnson has now declared that he will not seek an extension and wrote provisions ruling one out into the bill to implement the Withdrawal Agreement. It remains to be seen whether he will eat his words again.

Hard or soft Johnson?

One of the key unknowns is how the Johnson government, with 107 new MPs (most in seats previously held by Labour), will approach these issues.

An immediate reaction after the election was that Johnson would have a large enough majority to be able to override the hardliners in the party who had been willing to see the UK leave the EU without any deal at all. The suggestion was that Johnson would take a softer approach and strike an agreement that would allow the UK to be more closely aligned to the EU. This would avoid an abrupt shock to the economy.

More recently analysts have started to question the assumption. If the new Conservative MPs turn out to be hardliners, Johnson would have to listen to them.

According to one newspaper report, Johnson has ruled out any alignment with the EU, which would make any deal with Brussels extremely difficult. It would also violate the protocol on the Irish border. And it’s a complex pledge that involves much more than appears at first sight.

“What the hell does that even mean?” wrote former Australian trade negotiator Dmitry Grozoubinski.

The protocol on the Irish border

Although the text on keeping the Irish border invisible has been agreed, implementing it is complicated, and many question the implications.

It creates a trade border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Johnson has tried to deny this, but ministers’ statements and leaked documents show clearly Johnson was not telling the truth.

Some even speculate that this could lead to Northern Ireland leaving the UK and joining the Republic in the south. It’s true that the conflicting identities in the north — Irish nationalists against unionists who want to stay in the UK — has weakened. Still, a lot would have to happen before voters in both parts of Ireland agree to that.

The immediate challenge for the Johnson government is to set up the complex arrangements needed under the Withdrawal Agreement in order to avoid a visible border between the north and the south of the island. Many of them have to be created from scratch because they are not needed while the UK is part of the EU Single Market.

They involve creating a single all-island zone for standards and regulations on food, animals, plants and other products, effectively putting the UK’s Northern Ireland in the same zone as the EU. That is actually the status quo for Northern Ireland’s relationship with the Republic, but leaving the EU requires setting up new systems to allow it to continue.

They also involve complex customs arrangements for goods crossing from Great Britain (England, Scotland or Wales) into Northern Ireland. The UK would charge and collect customs duties on behalf of the Republic of Ireland (the EU), on products entering Great Britain from outside the UK and EU, with adjustments such as exemptions or rebates made if the products stay in Northern Ireland and are not transported south to the Republic.

Much of the checks and paperwork processing for customs and product standards will be done at ports in England, Scotland or Wales before shipping across to Northern Ireland. It will involve administrative processing that does not exist. Setting it up by the end of 2020 will be a race against time

While all of this is going on, Johnson will continue to insist that “Brexit is done”.

Level playing field?  More jargon to learn about duty-free tradeLevel playing field?  More jargon to learn about duty-free trade | TheusiNo (rights-free)

The future UK-EU relationship

The election campaign shed no light on what the Johnson government has in mind for the relationship with the EU. He deliberately avoided talking about it.

The political declaration just speaks of a free trade agreement, which could mean anything. All we know is that the UK and EU will effectively be negotiating to create new trade barriers instead of the usual practice of dismantling them.

The Johnson team insists the tight deadline will force the EU to focus on securing the kind of deal the UK wants (whatever that is). Most trade experts counter that the faster the deal he seeks, the higher the price he will have to pay the EU.

Time is extremely short. Some analysts predict the first few months of the 11-month transition will be spent on arguing within the UK about what its objectives should be, not with the EU.

Johnson no doubt hopes to avoid a lengthy internal debate by revealing no details and producing an agreement close to deadline, which the British parliament will simply accept.

That’s what he had first tried to do with his amendment to the Withdrawal Agreement, ditching his one-time allies, the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, the main party for keeping Northern Ireland in the UK, who oppose any border within the UK. At that time Johnson lacked a majority in the House of Commons.

Now, after the election, MPs have overwhelmingly voted In favour of a revised bill to implement the Withdrawal Agreement, and one that weakens parliamentary oversight over future trade relations. Johnson is banking on a similar majority backing his trade negotiations. It seems likely but it cannot be guaranteed.

The future UK-EU trade relationship will be much more difficult to negotiate than withdrawal. Even if the deal focuses mainly on tariffs, the EU will want ensure that lower, cheaper standards on labour and the environment and more generous competition and state aid policies will not undercut its own producers. Some predict the result will be that UK-EU trade will not even be tariff-free.

One outcome is that the British public is now adding “level playing field” to the lengthening list of trade and economics jargon it has had to learn because of Brexit.

Trade will flow more smoothly if the deal goes further, if UK and EU standards and regulations match. But reaching agreement on how to achieve that is complicated. It involves a choice among a number of possible methods. In the extreme it would involve the UK signing up to EU standards, which hard Brexiters oppose.

Services are in important part of the UK economy. At the moment, the UK has almost-free access for services to the rest of the EU as part of the Single Market. After Brexit that cannot be matched, but the less access the UK has, the bigger the wrench for the British economy.

Getting the British parliament to approve whatever is agreed might not be too complicated but nothing can be taken for granted. Nor can approval by the EU parliament, EU member states, and (depending on what is covered) the possible need for approval by their national and regional parliaments.

And still, while all this is going on, Johnson will claim “Brexit is done”.

Negotiating trade agreements with others

Johnson also wants quick agreements with the US, Australia, New Zealand and others. But trade agreements usually take years to negotiate.

Quick deals would either be basic, leaving out a lot that is important commercially. (Deals that only involve cutting import duties exclude countless standards and regulations for goods and services and a wide variety of ways for dealing with them; intellectual property such as patents, trademarks, copyright, geographical indications, and so on; investment; electronic commerce; and data sharing and protection.)

Or the UK would have to give in on much of what the other countries demand.

And economic analysis shows that these agreements cannot compensate for the UK’s loss of trade with the EU, particularly the two diverge widely.

The two groups of talks are linked. The US has already said a deal with the UK will be more difficult if Britain aligns its food safety standards with the EU’s (which has a different approach) in order to have smooth access to the EU market.

In the election campaign, the Conservatives were attacked repeatedly by Labour for being willing to sell off the National Health Service, Britain’s universal healthcare system, to the US, and to allow American drug companies to charge higher prices.

Johnson has repeatedly denied both. But in its trade negotiations the US has always pressed hard for tougher patent protection for pharmaceuticals (which raises prices) as well as increased access in general at higher prices. Public and leaked documents confirm this as a priority US objective in talks with the UK.

In the give and take of trade negotiations, if the UK rejects both, then the US is likely to block some of the UK’s demands.

The general public might be so fed up with Brexit that they will ignore all of these details. Some may be reassured to hear Johnson continuing to insist that “Brexit is done”.

But at the very least, businesses and organisations that will be affected will keep a close watch. It could still be a case of “they ain’t seen nothin’ yet”.


Essential listening — “How do we get Brexit done?”— a 29-minute BBC Radio 4 programme, December 19, 2019

Essential reading — “The Tory landslide and the Irish Sea” — by Irish state broadcaster RTÉ’s Europe editor, Tony Connelly, December 14, 2019



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