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COMMENTARY

Johnson's Brexit strategy rests on grand fallacy

BORIS Johnson is facing into a massive few days for his Brexit strategy as he prepares for the forthcoming Queen's Speech and EU Summit of presidents and prime ministers. Since he entered Downing Street, he has repeatedly promised to "get Brexit done" by Oct 31, but this rests on a grand political fallacy.

While the prime minister implies leaving the EU this month would put an end to the United Kingdom's Brexit saga, this flies in the face of reality. Moreover, his 'no-holds-barred, scorched earth' strategy risks polarising a divided nation even more.

Far from concluding the more than three-year-long Brexit drama that has engulfed the nation, leaving the EU with or without a deal this month would only be the start of a new phase of negotiations that will help define UK and international politics well into the 2020s. To paraphrase Winston Churchill's 1942 speech on the World War II, securing an Oct 31 exit would "not be the end. . . not even the beginning of the end. But. . . perhaps, the end of the beginning".

Take the example of a 'no-deal Brexit' which will not just mean that London will automatically leave the EU without many, if not all, of the rules that regulate the UK's relationships with the Brussels-based club, but also many economic relationships with the rest of the world too, inasmuch as these are underpinned by trade treaties that the EU has agreed with nations from the Asia-Pacific to the Americas. With Oct 31 approaching fast, less than half of 40 planned post-Brexit trade agreements have so far been signed by London to replace them.

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Quite aside from the economic shock that such a hard, disorderly exit is predicted to entail, what some Brexiteers fail to acknowledge is the way that such a UK exit from the EU would dominate domestic politics for years. So much so that the rest of Mr Johnson's domestic policy agenda may potentially be completely side-lined, especially given increased political strains between England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales.

If the reality of no-deal dawns in November, both Brussels and London would almost certainly need to return to the negotiating table in the weeks that follow, but with a new set of incentives. As of Nov 1, the UK would no longer be within the so-called Article 50 process.

END OF ROUND 1

This will mean, officially speaking at least, that even a tweaked version of the withdrawal deal negotiated by Theresa May would no longer be on the table. And Britain would be a 'third country' with the new EU Commission leadership which takes office this autumn needing a new post-exit negotiating mandate from the EU-27.

Such a 'no-deal' exit would therefore just be the end of round 1 of Brexit as negotiations resume again. Such discussions could take significantly longer under a no-deal scenario than if Mr Johnson secures a compromise deal and gets that through Parliament as at least there will then be an agreed framework for moving forwards to a final, comprehensive deal in a transition period.

Without a transition, the negotiating process could get significantly harder, with the same trade-offs as before, including that of free movement of people versus scope of access to the single market, but with potentially added time pressure if the UK economy is hurting more than that of the EU-27. One factor that may make concluding a final, comprehensive UK-EU deal significantly more difficult is that - outside of the Article 50 process which requires only a 'qualified majority' of states to ratify - EU-27 unanimity would be needed which risks one or two European states blocking agreement.

Beyond this no-deal scenario, there is of course a different future which sees Mr Johnson secure a political breakthrough over the Irish backstop allowing him to potentially secure approval in Parliament for a modified version of Mrs May's withdrawal deal.

Yet, even here, Brexit would be far from over, as the next phase of negotiations move mainly from the three core Article 50 issues - the financial settlement, citizen rights, and the Irish border - to the full spectrum of topics from transport and fisheries to financial services and data transfer which will collectively represent a new order of complexity to negotiate.

Take the example of converting the approximately 600-page withdrawal agreement which will become much longer legal text if ratified and transformed into a free trade deal with many details the subject of long discussions as the Canadians found in their own seven-year discussions with Brussels to secure the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement. Even the less than 25-page political declaration that top-lines the future EU-UK relationship will require intense negotiation as it is translated into hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of legal documentation.

In what may prove the most complex discussions for London since the UK joined the EU in the 1970s, the current transition phase proposed of less than two years is not likely to be nearly long enough. Hence that's why some European politicians, such as Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, have proposed a five-year period.

Yet neither London nor Brussels is prepared to talk openly about this, for now at least, which yet again misleads the public. For instance, Mr Johnson is reluctant to raise a longer transition now as many of his Brexiteer allies are opposed to making significant continuing payments to the EU regardless of the benefits.

TRANSITION PERIOD

Meanwhile, a shorter, rather than longer, transition period, is seen by some in Brussels as a way to keep London on the political back foot. Yet, any such one to two-year period that starts in November would very likely need to be eventually extended if a final comprehensive settlement is to be agreed, which could prove politically difficult for Mr Johnson's government (or a successor), and potentially Brussels too.

Taken overall, Mr Johnson's desire to get Brexit finalised by Oct 31 may make for a potentially eye-catching future election campaign slogan, but flies in the face of reality. Far from the UK's exit being done this autumn, with or without a deal, years of complex, detailed negotiations would follow that will shape UK and international politics well into the 2020s.

  • The writer is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics