Brexit: where are we now?

As I’m sure you have noticed, rather a lot has happened since I last blogged on this subject! So, you might like a short summary of what we now understand Boris Johnson’s proposed agreement amounts to. This at least has become clearer since the publication of the five hundred and ninety-nine pages of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill together with the accompanying Political Declaration which comes in at a mere twenty-six pages but which, as we will see, is arguably no less significant.

The context of all this is of course the coming election on the 12th December. The first point to make is that the Johnson Withdrawal Bill will only become law if the Conservatives gain an overall majority. All the Opposition parties are opposed to the Agreement, albeit their actual positions vary. The Labour Party are clear that they would seek to renegotiate the agreement with the European Commission within a hoped-for period of three months. The main amendment they appear to be seeking is for the UK to remain within the Customs Union, meaning that UK goods could circulate freely within the EU without tariffs. It would however also oblige the UK to charge the same tariffs as the EU on goods coming in from outside the EU and thus effectively remove the possibility of independent UK free trade deals. Under the Labour plan there would then be another referendum. Both the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party (SNP) have the very straightforward policy of simply not leaving the EU at all, albeit the SNP would achieve this by leaving the UK. In contrast the Democratic Unionist Party, who previously supported the Conservatives, are in favour of renegotiating the agreement to remove the special provisions for Northern Ireland which they regard as unacceptably separating the Province from the rest of the UK. Finally, the Brexit Party appear to favour proceeding to the kind of “no deal” Brexit which I have previously described. So, it is not plain sailing for the Withdrawal Agreement. However, given the current opinion poll predictions, it is clearly worth studying what the changes are that result from Boris Johnson’s renegotiation. I’ve already mentioned the controversy over Northern Ireland which acquires an unprecedented status as outside the Customs Union but subject to much EU regulation so as to allow effectively free cross border traffic between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. This will result in some form of controls between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK although precisely what these will amount to seems a matter of some dispute. The rest of the UK will however also leave EU internal market and not be subject to its regulation once the implementation period scheduled to last until 31 December is past. The UK can negotiate free trade deals with non-EU countries once the Agreement comes into force and bring them into effect for the whole of the UK ( ie including Northern Ireland) from the 1st January 2021.

However, the potentially most significant change from Theresa May’s agreement is that the UK is no longer committing itself to maintaining beyond the implementation period the same legal commitment to align UK environmental and protection standards with those of the EU. Instead the Johnson Government has committed itself in the non-legally binding Political Declaration to maintaining “high standards” in these and related areas. In other words, the UK is reserving the right to have alternative standards to those of the EU where it believes that it would be more cost- effective or have other advantages. Hence the UK will have the ability on regulatory as well as other grounds to become, as Mrs Merkel said the other day, a “competitor” to the EU on global markets. We can expect this to be a matter of much political dispute during the election campaign with opponents claiming that what is really intended is to lower standards rather than meet the same level of protection in other ways.

The final question is perhaps what certainty the election result will bring for the Johnson Agreement. Clearly without a Conservative overall victory it is doomed, as a victorious opposition either through one party having a majority or through a coalition will take something approaching the alternative approaches already outlined. If there is a Conservative overall majority, we will not see real changes until 1 January 2021 but the ground will be 2 being laid next year for a very different relationship with the EU including the negotiation of a free trade agreement between the UK and the EU. So, I am afraid whoever wins the election it is no good asking a well known Scandinavian Christmas figure for a Brexit debate free 2020 – that will be well beyond the powers even of Santa!

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