Boris Johnson Is Hurtling the U.K. Toward Another Brexit Cliff

World Politics Review, 15.09.2020
Kimberly Ann Elliott, académica (U. George Washington y Center for Global Development)

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks to his office on Downing Street. (AP/Frank Augstein).

Four years after Britons voted narrowly to leave the European Union, the Brexit drama continues. The United Kingdom formally left the EU in January, but trade and other arrangements remain the same while negotiators try to reach a final agreement by the end of the year on the terms of the post-Brexit trade relationship. So far, however, the deadline is looming with no agreement in sight. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week raised the stakes by threatening to stop talking if there is no agreement by Oct. 15. His government further complicated things by releasing draft legislation that Johnson’s own Cabinet members admit would contradict the terms of its withdrawal agreement with the EU, which was negotiated last year, and violate international law, since it is an international treaty.

As part of his strategy for gaining and holding power—by catering to constituencies favoring a “hard” Brexit—Johnson has repeatedly flirted with the idea of leaving the EU without a deal. His predecessor as prime minister, Theresa May, resigned after she failed to gain support from Johnson and other hard-liners for the withdrawal agreement she had negotiated with the EU. Johnson made leaving the EU by the end of 2019 a core element of his case to succeed May, and then used the threat of a no-deal outcome to try to pressure the British Parliament into approving the slightly modified pact that he struck with Brussels. That deal, among other issues, set the level of payments that the U.K. will owe the EU as a result of withdrawal and also addressed the status of EU citizens in the U.K. and British citizens in the rest of the EU.

The most difficult Brexit issue, however—and the one that brought down May—has always been how to handle the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The key element of the Good Friday Agreement that ended the Troubles, the decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, is the open border with Ireland, which has allowed goods and people to go back and forth ever since, without barriers or border checks. The dilemma is how to keep that border open if the U.K. is no longer in a customs union with the EU, meaning that some goods will become subject to import duties or will be regulated under different standards. May’s solution was to negotiate a so-called backstop that would effectively keep Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market until another solution could be found. But that compromise was unacceptable to hard-line Conservative Brexiteers, including Johnson.

When Johnson took over as prime minister, he chose the only other realistic option for keeping the Irish border open. The agreement he negotiated allowed for checks on goods shipped from Great Britain to Northern Ireland to ensure they are not then shipped on to Ireland in violation of whatever trade deal British and EU officials eventually conclude. That compromise was highly unpopular with Northern Ireland’s pro-British Democratic Unionist Party, which fears it could lead to Irish reunification. But the implementing legislation nevertheless passed the British Parliament, with the U.K. then formally withdrawing from the EU.

London and Brussels were supposed to have spent this year negotiating new arrangements for post-Brexit trade. But the coronavirus pandemic has derailed those talks. If there is no deal, British exporters will face the same tariffs that the other countries without preferential access in the European market pay. In some cases, particularly for agricultural and food products, the increases would be substantial. Importers, and their customers, will also bear increased costs and delays in trade with the EU because of new British tariffs and border procedures. A 2018 British government report estimated that a no-deal Brexit could lower economic growth by 7.7 percent over 15 years.

Despite the potential costs, the negotiations have been slow, and there are issues where Johnson has shown little inclination to compromise. Johnson is taking a hard line on controlling fishing access in British territorial waters, and on preserving latitude to pursue an industrial policy for high-tech industries and establish labor, food safety and other standards that differ from those in the EU. European officials have declared those positions unacceptable, but say British negotiators have not made any counteroffers. Complicating matters even more, because of COVID-19, negotiators have not been able to meet face to face, or in informal settings where hard compromises are often struck. The European chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, also tested positive for the virus in March, and his British counterpart, David Frost, self-quarantined soon after with mild symptoms, further delaying talks.

If those stumbling blocks weren’t big enough, Johnson’s government floated legislation last week that would unilaterally rewrite the withdrawal deal. He is also reviving the threat of no deal, in order to pressure the EU into accepting his government’s revisions to the withdrawal agreement. The draft bill would give authority to ministers to unilaterally change arrangements related to internal trade, including the ones governing trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

British officials tried to dismiss the provision as a minor, technical clarification of an agreement that was negotiated in haste. But the bill was subject to immediate and harsh criticism for violating international law, which Northern Ireland’s secretary of state, Brandon Lewis, even admitted was true. Former Conservative Prime Minister John Major expressed concern that the resulting loss of British credibility internationally would not be regained. Meanwhile, EU officials demanded that London withdraw certain provisions in the draft legislation “in the shortest time possible and in any case by the end of the month,” threatening legal action to address “violations” of the withdrawal agreement. Johnson responded by asserting that a no-deal Brexit would be a “good outcome” and that “we will prosper mightily as a result.”

Johnson’s dilemma is that the economic costs of a no-deal Brexit, already high, would come on top of the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic and his government’s mishandling of the response. Given the scale of the potential costs, Johnson’s stance seems more like a bluff than a genuine threat. But who knows? British political experts note that Johnson has never been a conventional politician, with one comparing his approach to that of “a madman, no-holds-barred style of governing” where “you put your foot on the accelerator as hard as you can and hurtle yourself towards the cliff.” The problem for Britons is that Johnson won’t be alone in the car.

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