Stephen Booth is Acting Director of Open Europe.
What will Brussels, Berlin and Paris make of Thursday’s momentous UK election result? There may be mixed feelings induced by the realisation that Brexit is definitely going to happen. But the overriding emotion is likely to be one of relief that the UK has finally reached a settled decision to leave. Leo Varadkar summed it up by saying, “I think it’s a positive thing that we have a decisive outcome in Britain.”
The clarity of the result and the breathing space offered by a sizeable majority may have increased the chances of the UK and the EU reaching a new trade deal, but neither side’s red lines are likely to change substantially. Therefore, in my view, a looser UK-EU economic relationship, rather than a pivot towards a “softer” Brexit, remains the most probable outcome.
It has been popular among many commentators to deride the campaign slogan “Get Brexit Done!” by noting that key UK-EU negotiations are yet to come and that, given the EU is unlikely to disappear anytime soon, Brexit will be never-ending.
Of course, there is still much left to do, and our relationship with Europe could never be “settled” in a one-shot deal. However, we should not underestimate the consequences of bringing the first phase of Brexit to a conclusion.
Over the past three and half years, without a solid parliamentary majority for any course of action, the UK spent more time negotiating with itself than with the EU. The size of Boris Johnson’s majority undoubtedly gives him much more flexibility, although the election results in Scotland and Northern Ireland illustrate that simmering tensions within the Union may yet play an important role over the course of this parliament.
To the relief of many, including in the EU, parliamentary process will no longer be at the centre of the Brexit action in anything like the same way. Once the formalities of passing the Withdrawal Agreement Bill are out of the way in the coming weeks, the future UK-EU relationship will become primarily a matter for negotiation between the UK government and the EU.
The Government will also have greater capacity to act in other areas directly or indirectly linked to Brexit, such as trade negotiations with non-EU countries and crafting a new UK immigration policy. Equally, having now secured the means to implement the 2016 Brexit vote, the Conservative Party will now need to craft a compelling narrative of what Brexit is actually for, which was conspicuously absent from this election campaign.
Some are suggesting Johnson’s new-found room for manoeuvre will enable Johnson to “ditch the ERG” in favour of an extension to the transition period, and a “softer”, “deeper” UK-EU relationship. This assumption is likely to be mistaken. Firstly, asking for an extension in June 2020 would not only mean breaking a campaign promise, but once again entering into arduous negotiations with the EU about money, and fish, without a guarantee of a trade agreement in return.
Secondly, a softer Brexit, and the degree of alignment with EU rules that would require, is at odds with what we know about Johnson’s own strong preference for divergence. Just as importantly, the EU has framed Brexit as a binary choice between a high alignment, high market access relationship (like Norway) and a low alignment, low access relationship (like Canada).
The EU shows no signs of fundamentally altering its offer to the UK, whether the negotiations take place over 11 months or two years. In addition, even if it was tempted by the prospect, Brussels will not be able to count on a “reverse Brexit”, or even “soft Brexit”, faction in Parliament to put pressure on the government to soften its negotiating position. It is easy to see where the path of least resistance lies.
This is not to say it will all be plain sailing. Within the broad parameters of a “Canada-style” deal, detailed technical negotiations will be important in determining the eventual balance of market access versus obligations on the so-called level playing field. But the details of UK-EU rules of origin for goods, however important, are unlikely to grip the media and the country in the same way as whether Brexit will actually happen or not.
Brussels may be relieved that it now has a stable negotiating partner in London. However, the EU has yet to fully wrestle with the implications of Brexit and what its ideal long-term outcome is. When things get difficult within the EU, the lowest common denominator often prevails and flexibility can be in short supply.
Foreign policy and geopolitics could also play a greater role in the UK-EU negotiations in the next phase, representing the second pillar of a new “grand bargain”. Emmanuel Macron’s mooted new, intergovernmental “European Security Council” is not only borne of his frustration with the EU’s impotence on foreign policy; it appears specifically designed as a means of enabling the UK to remain within the “European orbit” on major international issues. The UK might well ask that it gets something in return if it is to ensure the success of such a venture.