LONDON — Boris Johnson’s victory puts Brexit on track — but this is just the beginning.
After winning a strong majority in the December 12 general election, Johnson returns as prime minister with the political capital to pull the U.K. out of the European Union in early 2020 and move onto negotiations about Britain’s future relationship with the bloc.
Having insisted all Tory candidates backed the Brexit agreement he struck with Brussels in October, the prime minister can push his deal through the U.K. parliament without further delay.
“Parliament as a whole will be a lot more straightforward to deal with,” said a senior adviser to Johnson. “In terms of the immediate term after the general election, delivering the legislation for Brexit should be a very straightforward process in terms of the Withdrawal Agreement getting through the House, purely because we will be able to hold that majority together in a way that was not possible before as all candidates have endorsed the deal.”
The House of Commons is expected to vote on the deal again before Christmas. The House of Lords will then consider the plan and, once it is ratified by the U.K. parliament, the European Parliament would then vote on the deal. This process is expected to pass smoothly, enabling Johnson to stick to the current scheduled exit date of January 31, 2020.
Brussels said Friday it was ready to start the next phase of negotiations.
Attention will quickly turn to the transition phase, which keeps the U.K. trading with the EU on its existing terms until the end of December 2020. During this transition, Johnson will need to decide what kind of post-Brexit relationship he wants with the EU, spanning everything from trade to security, defense, fishing, data protection and science.
If he can’t strike a trade deal during this transition phase, the U.K. would leave the EU with no deal and would trade with its nearest neighbor on World Trade Organization terms.
In their 2019 manifesto, the Tories promised not to extend the Brexit transition period, though with such a large majority and having broken plenty of promises in the past, Johnson could still seek more time.
Brussels, for its part, said Friday it was ready to start the next phase of negotiations. Speaking at an EU leaders’ summit in Brussels shortly after an exit poll had suggested a strong majority for the Conservative Party, European Council President Charles Michel said EU leaders were “ready for the next steps.”
“We are ready for the next steps. We will see if it is possible for the British parliament to accept the Withdrawal Agreement, and to take a decision,” he said. “And if it is the case, we are ready for the next steps. We have a way of working in order to guarantee the unity of the European countries, to guarantee the transparency and to try to keep a close cooperation with the United Kingdom.”
EU27 leaders will discuss Brexit later Friday at the end of their summit in Brussels.
Clock starts ticking again
“The day after the Withdrawal Agreement goes through parliament then the problems start all over,” said Richard Whitman, a professor of politics and international relations at the University of Kent. “By setting this tight deadline to negotiate the future relationship without clearly articulating all aspects of that relationship and planning to end the transition so early, what the British government has already done is creating the script for the opposition in parliament.”
The first step for Johnson’s government is to set the U.K.’s priorities for this second round of negotiations.
During the first phase of the Brexit negotiations, the EU set the agenda and decided the order in which topics would be addressed. This was accepted by former Prime Minister Theresa May, at the price of losing negotiating power, and was harshly criticized by her hard-line Brexiteer colleagues.
This time, it would be in the U.K.’s interest for the talks on the different elements of the future relationship to be negotiated in parallel, since this would allow for trade-offs between issues and better time management given the pressure of the December 2020 deadline.
Johnson has not yet indicated how he might proceed in this regard, but diplomats from EU member states agree that the December 2020 deadline is unrealistic for both parties to reach a comprehensive deal on their future relationship. They expect the British prime minister to break his manifesto pledge and request an extension to the transition at some point in the summer.
The British government is likely to continue to prepare for a potential cliff-edge in December 2020.
It is possible, however, that Johnson pursues a more limited deal, something German officials have indicated might be possible.
Given the magnitude of the future relationship negotiations, some EU leaders would like the transition to last as long as might be needed to reach a comprehensive deal on the future relationship, rather than getting it done quickly. Thus they are more inclined towards giving the U.K. a longer extension than those granted during the Brexit deal talks — of up to two or three years.
During the transition period, a joint U.K.-EU committee will oversee the implementation of the Brexit deal and judge whether both parties are living up to their commitments. Regardless of the evolution of the future relationship talks, the transition itself might open up opportunities for further clashes between London and Brussels.
“The transition is an untried experiment for the EU,” said Whitman. “And we are still yet to see how that joint committee is going to work. The longer the transition, the higher the likelihood that something is going to emerge that is going to be tricky. But the shorter the transition, the more difficult it is to get a deal [on the future relationship]. It is a sort of a catch-22 situation.”
The next cliff-edge
In parallel, the British government is likely to continue to prepare for a potential cliff-edge in December 2020.
This scenario terrifies U.K. businesses, which complain they have wasted billions in preparing for a no-deal situation three times during the last two years. Johnson will have to decide at what point his government starts communicating to British industry about any potential changes that might affect them.
John Foster, director of campaigns at the CBI trade body, said a Conservative majority should enable a “smooth and orderly withdrawal,” but hopes the second phase of the negotiations yields a U.K.-EU trade deal that keeps Britain aligned with Brussels on regulations and delivers for the U.K. service industries.
“We would want to work with the government in a genuine constructive partnership on how we can get the right business architecture in place to make sure the second phase is guided by the economic evidence provided by business,” he said. “The focus needs to be on getting the right outcome for our economy, to ensure that [any free-trade agreement] is a deal that has alignment on the rules [with the EU] in order to facilitate frictionless trade and delivers for our world-leading service industries. At the moment, the government’s political declaration is light on services, and that is where the U.K. has so much to offer.”
Johnson will also have to consider whether the structure of the British government is fit for the second phase of the talks, something long discussed in Whitehall.
As the prime minister overseeing the U.K.’s repositioning in the world, Johnson must decide how involved he would like to be in the day-to-day decision-making on future relationship negotiations with Brussels. He might hand over some responsibility to the Cabinet Office — and more precisely to current no-deal preparations supremo Michael Gove, who is regarded as a safe pair of hands.
A strong leader — either Johnson, Gove or somebody else — will be needed in order to keep all the secretary of states in line, according to Joe Owen, a researcher at the Institute for Government. “There will be some departments that would have different agendas in the negotiations in terms of priorities in the negotiations. Not least within that, you have the Department for International Trade, where they will be thinking ‘the looser the arrangement with the EU, the more space that we have to play with the U.S. or any other country,’” he said.
Conservative officials expect a government reshuffle shortly, to prepare Whitehall for the second phase of the negotiations.
The future existence of the Brexit department is also up in the air, although there will still be a role for its civil servants in coordinating the preparations for a cliff-edge situation and providing analytical support for the U.K. team negotiating the future relationship.
“Our view is that you’re better carrying out the negotiations through the Cabinet Office as the central player, which does not have its own departmental agenda and it is still seen as a coordinating function that supports the prime minister,” said Owen. “Whereas if you move the negotiations’ responsibility under another secretary of state, and they don’t have the exact same agenda as the prime minister, there is potential for problems such as the divisions we saw between Theresa May and [the former Brexit secretaries] David Davies and Dominic Raab.”
What kind of Brexit?
Johnson’s victory gives him considerable scope to negotiate whatever kind of future relationship with the EU he wants.
“Lots of the new MPs are going to be very clear that Boris Johnson is the reason why they are a Conservative MP and I think there will be a huge amount of faith in him to deliver as he is very good at communicating and taking the parliamentary party with him,” said a former Johnson adviser. “I don’t see any reason why he won’t continue to rise to these challenges, albeit it is going to be a challenge trying to keep these groups together as the future relationship is negotiated.”
Nor does the prime minister need to keep factions within his party onside. Whereas groups such as the European Research Group of Brexiteers held huge sway over the Conservative governments before this election, the party’s large majority now means the prime minister can afford to ignore considerable opposition in his ranks and still pass votes in the House of Commons.
However, the EU may prove harder to crack, especially with a ticking clock on the transition period. Johnson will need to weigh up possible economic benefits of further delays to a Brexit trade deal against the political downside of failing to meet the Tories’ manifesto commitment.