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Why 'getting Brexit done' is Boris bluster

WITH the United Kingdom going to the polls this week, the EU-27's presidents and prime ministers meet on Thursday and Friday in their last summit of the year. While Brexit is not formally on the agenda, Brussels and European capitals are keenly awaiting the UK result given that it could be a 'hinge-point' for the nation's scheduled departure from the EU.

While many opposition parties are now pushing for a second referendum on the UK's membership of the EU, Boris Johnson is campaigning on the slogan of "getting Brexit done" by Jan 31. Further, the prime minister asserts that the election therefore amounts to a choice between stability provided by the Tories, or the "chaos" of an anti-Conservative coalition championing a new EU referendum.

Yet, Mr Johnson's mantra is as misleading as it is simplistic. While he implies leaving the EU next month - under the terms of the withdrawal deal he agreed with the EU-27 - will put an end to the UK's Brexit saga, this is complete "pie-in-the-sky".

Far from concluding the more than three and a half year-long Brexit drama, leaving the EU with or without a deal next month would only be the start of a new phase of negotiations that will help define UK and international politics well into the new decade ahead.

Even if Mr Johnson remains prime minister after the election on Thursday, and manages to get his withdrawal deal ratified in coming weeks, it will not trigger the "endgame" of Brexit.

Instead, the political saga will move to the next phase of negotiations: away 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 600-page plus 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 approximately 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.

COMPLEX DISCUSSIONS

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 a year to end-2020 is not likely to be nearly long enough. This is despite claims to the contrary by Mr Johnson and other leading Tory politicians like Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid who remarkably said last Thursday that "there is not a single doubt in my mind (a final comprehensive deal) can be agreed within months, and we can get it through Parliament in 2020".

The long odds of this happening in practice, however, is one reason why some European politicians, such as Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, have proposed a five-year transition period. Mr Coveney is well aware of the challenges of what Mr Javid is suggesting, and this is reinforced by EU negotiators such as Michel Barnier who have said a "bare bones" agreement is probably the best that can be hoped for in less than twelve months.

The reasons why timeframes would be so tight in a 2020 negotiation is because Brussels is not allowed by law to conduct formal negotiations on a new trade deal until after the UK has ratified a withdrawal deal, and the EU-27 has approved a joint negotiating mandate. That latter process could take weeks, meaning that formal discussions may not begin till March at the earliest and, because a deal would need to be ratified, negotiations realistically need to be completed by early autumn, if not late summer.

Yet few in London nor Brussels are prepared to talk openly about the need for a transition extension, for now at least, despite the obvious need. For instance, Mr Johnson has made it a central election pledge not to extend the end-2020 deadline given that many of his Brexiteer allies are opposed to making significant continuing payments to the EU regardless of the benefits.

This threatens a new "cliff-edge: in negotiations and what would, in effect, be the threat of a no-deal Brexit raising its head again in the second half of 2020. Only on Thursday, Mr Javid refused to rule out this scenario. Thus, rather than the Tories bringing stability to the nation, post-election, the next few months could see a re-run of the political and economic uncertainties of 2019.

Quite aside from the economic shock that such a hard, disorderly exit at the end of 2020 could entail, what some Brexiteers fail to acknowledge is the way that such a UK departure 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 over Brexit.

If the reality of no-deal dawns in a year's time, 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. Such discussions could take significantly longer under a no-deal scenario than if Mr Johnson were to secure a final, comprehensive deal in a transition period.

EU-27 UNANIMITY NEEDED

Outside 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 European 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 formal transition 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.

Taken overall, Mr Johnson's "get Brexit done" mantra may make for a powerful election campaign slogan, but it is a huge distortion of the truth. Far from the UK's exit being finished by end-January, with or without a deal, years of complex, detailed negotiations would follow that will shape UK and international politics well into the next decade.

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