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If Tories win UK elections, Johnson’s ‘preposterous’ Brexit plans threaten no-deal

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures during the launch of the Welsh Conservatives' manifesto in Wrexham, Britain, November 25, 2019.
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures during the launch of the Welsh Conservatives' manifesto in Wrexham, Britain, November 25, 2019. REUTERS - PHIL NOBLE

Boris Johnson unveiled the Conservatives’ manifesto on Sunday ahead of the British general elections on December 12, with this all-important document vowing that the UK will leave the Brexit transition period at the end of 2020 and negotiate a trade deal with the EU in the meantime. Analysts say these promises are unrealistic and would lead to a no-deal outcome if carried out.

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The British prime minister and Conservative leader is centring his campaign on the mantra “Get Brexit Done” – promising to take the UK out of the EU on the January 31 deadline after passing his withdrawal agreement, then end the transition period (under which Britain would remain in the single market and customs union) on the scheduled date of December 31, 2020.

In its manifesto, the Conservative Party vows to negotiate a new trade agreement with the EU in the space of a year. If that fails, the plan is to leave the transition stage without a deal.

At this stage in the campaign, a Tory majority is seen as the most likely electoral outcome, with Johnson’s party enjoying an 11-point poll lead, according to Politico’s latest agglomeration of voter intention surveys. There is a “66 percent probability” of a Conservative majority, one of the UK’s most respected polling experts, Sir John Curtice, told Channel 4 News on November 15.

Canada-style deal would take ‘several years’

The Conservatives want a deal that would ensure tariff- and quota-free trade in goods and similar provisions for services to those the EU granted to Canada in the CETA agreement – which Tory Brexiteers have long touted as their ideal template for a post-Brexit trade deal.

The problem is that, given the complexity of the issues at stake, it took Brussels and Ottawa seven years to negotiate CETA. At the end of that process, the European Parliament approved the deal in early 2017 – yet even now, only parts of agreement are in force as it awaits the unanimous approval of all the EU’s national parliaments. When the prospect of an eventual Canada-style trade deal first rose to the fore in 2017, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier warned that, as with CETA, it would take “several years” to negotiate.

“The EU has never done a trade deal within a year, and since it joined the EEC [European Economic Community] in 1973, the UK hasn’t done a trade deal at all, so it has no institutional expertise,” observed David Henig, a former British official responsible for trade, now director of the UK Trade Policy Project at the European Centre for International Political Economy in Brussels.

In late October, Barnier added that the UK would face trade barriers with the EU if it diverged substantially from European laws, telling journalists that “access to our markets will be proportional to the commitments taken to the common rules”.

“The EU is always robust; it’s a formidable negotiator on trade because it always protects its own interests,” said Georgina Wright, a Brexit specialist at the Institute for Government in London.

‘Little room for cherry-picking’

But for many Conservatives, divergence from EU laws is the entire point of Brexit. Indeed, days before Barnier’s comments, a leaked document obtained by the Financial Times revealed that the Tory government intends to take a “very different interpretation” of European guidelines on workers’ rights and the environment. Johnson’s arch-Brexiteer Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab seemed to endorse this approach, insisting to the BBC on November 17 that “we are not going to align ourselves to EU rules”.

If it wants a post-Brexit free trade deal with the EU, the UK has “little room for cherry-picking” because, as far as Brussels is concerned, “there can be negotiations on tariffs and quotas, but not on rules”, said Elvire Fabry, an expert on European trade at the Institut Jacques Delors think-tank in Paris.

“The only thing that could ease a short negotiation would be if Johnson decides to keep the UK aligned on EU regulations,” Fabry continued. “But even this scenario could hardly deliver a deal in one year.”

A ‘hard-right dream’

Westminster politicians on both sides of the Brexit divide have followed the logic to its inevitable conclusion: if a free trade deal with the EU takes years to forge, and an electorally victorious Johnson enacts his pledge not to renew the transition period, that would lead to a no-deal outcome.

Excoriating Johnson’s Brexit timetable as “preposterous”, former Tory deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine told the BBC Today programme on Tuesday that Britain, in the case of a Conservative victory, is “in for another year of uncertainty and the possibility of a no-deal exit at the end of it”.

“When transition ends in Dec 2020, likely no trade agreement agreed & hard right will get their dream of crash out No Deal Brexit,” Caroline Lucas, leader of the pro-European Green Party, tweeted in October.

“If there’s no deal struck in the transition period up to December 2020, the UK has the right” to “leave on no-deal terms”, Tory backbencher and diehard Eurosceptic John Baron told BBC Newsnight the same month.

A no-deal outcome produced by leaving the transition period without a trade deal would be largely the same as a no-deal outcome created by leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement.

“The only difference is that at the end of the transition period there will be arrangements in place to prevent a hard border in Northern Ireland,” Wright observed.

Johnson in a ‘trap’

Consequently, this new form of no-deal would still threaten severe economic consequences for Britain and the EU alike. “It could have the potential to push the UK into a recession, as well as Germany, with a spillover effect on the Eurozone and the global economy,” Fabry noted.

If the Conservatives win a majority, as the polls predict, the question will be whether Johnson can ditch his vow on the transition period – an invaluable part of his “Get Brexit Done” pledge – by requesting an extension before the July 1 deadline.

The former London mayor surprised some by agreeing a similar EU divorce deal to that of his predecessor, Theresa May. But Johnson owes his residency in Downing Street to arch-Brexiteer Tory backbenchers, whose support was vital to his victory in last year’s Conservative leadership contest. It is significant that in negotiating a new withdrawal agreement, Johnson acceded to the demand of fiercely Eurosceptic Tory backbench group, the ERG: Get rid of the backstop.

Should Johnson win on December 12, he will be in a “trap”, noted Quentin Peel, an expert on British politics at Chatham House in London. “Either he accepts a trade deal set out by the EU 27, which would be anathema to the hardline Brexiters in his party, or he gives those hardliners want they want in their hearts and we crash out without a deal.”

One factor could make that dilemma even worse for Johnson: bearing in mind that no Conservative leader has won a significant electoral majority since Margaret Thatcher’s third landslide in 1987, analysts expect that any Tory victory would be narrow.

If such is the case, Peel pointed out, the ERG would be “quite a big minority” within Johnson’s parliamentary party – able to “hold the prime minister to ransom” to stop him extending the transition period and get Brexit done on their terms.

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