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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recent resounding general election victory — the biggest Conservative win since his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 barnstorming success — has made it certain that Britain will part company with the European Union come the end of January, fulfilling the government’s key re-election campaign pledge to “get Brexit done.”
Even ardent Remainers, who hoped to engineer a second Brexit referendum to overturn the 2016 plebiscite in which a small majority voted to leave the European Union, have accepted their hope will not become a reality. With a majority of 80 in the House of Commons, Johnson’s withdrawal legislation, which was presented Thursday in parliament, will sail through.
So will next year be largely a Brexit-free one? Is the saga of Britain’s departure from Europe to be finally completed more than three-and-a-half years after the country voted to leave? Think again, say analysts. Britain and Europe will shortly enter a second and possibly trickier stage of negotiations over their future political and trade relations, and the stakes are high for both sides.
Speaking after his huge Dec. 12 general election win, Johnson said the results of Britain’s third such vote in four years had emphasized the “irrefutable” determination of the British people to leave the EU and to end the “miserable threats” of a second Brexit referendum, a re-run plebiscite backed by both Britain’s main opposition party, Labour, and the centrist Liberal Democrats.
But whether the Johnson government will be able to forge a trade deal with Brussels by the end of 2020, the deadline set under the terms of the withdrawal agreement struck by London and Brussels in November, is another matter.
Until the deadline, Britain will be in transition with access to the EU’s single market and customs union and it will be obliged to observe EU laws and regulations as well as product standards.
The post-Brexit transition period could be extended by mutual agreement between London and Brussels for up to two years, but Johnson is adamant he will not seek any extension. And, to the delight of hardline anti-EU Conservative members of parliament, he’s boxing himself in by adding a new clause to Brexit legislation that rules out by law any extension of the transition.
The move, which has roiled currency markets, is reminiscent of the tactics of his Conservative predecessor, Theresa May, who drew early Brexit red lines when negotiating the first departure stage of Brexit. But she had to keep on backing down, a pattern that eroded her authority and doomed her.
Johnson’s political rivals have labeled the refusal to contemplate even an extension as “reckless and irresponsible.” Labour lawmaker Keir Starmer said the move meant Johnson is “prepared to put people’s jobs at risk” by crashing out of the EU without any trade deal.
Some Conservatives who favor maintaining a close relationship with the EU worry the move will backfire and make it more difficult to negotiate a post-Brexit agreement with Brussels. For Brexit hardliners that is exactly what they want — a no-deal Brexit that frees Britain from any regulatory alignment with the EU, which they say means Britain will finally be in control of its destiny.
Johnson told lawmakers this week the clause he is introducing to the exit legislation would put an end to years of “deadlock, dither and delay.” That it certainly will. But it has heightened the chances of Britain leaving the bloc without any agreement, according to EU officials and European national leaders.
They say Johnson’s aim to conclude a trade deal by the end of 2020 is unrealistic and that the complicated negotiations ahead will be daunting, including controversial issues such as fishing rights, consumer and environmental standards and financial services as well as security cooperation, transportation and goods.
Analysts say Johnson’s hardline approach is a political signal, designed to indicate to those who had been hoping he might slide to a softer Brexit over the next few months. Pro-EU politicians had been arguing that the large parliamentary majority he enjoys would allow him to face down hardline Brexiters in his own party.
But Conservative insiders say Johnson has concluded that if the second-stage talks with Brussels are to go anywhere fast, there has to be a definite deadline, one that will focus minds. How effective that might be remains unclear. Trade deals typically take many years to finalize and senior EU figures are skeptical that a deal can be agreed to within 12 months, brinkmanship notwithstanding.
If no deal is agreed to in time, Britain will default to trading with Europe, by far its largest trading partner, under World Trade Organization (WTO) terms, meaning tariffs could be put on imports and exports to and from the EU and customs checks could be placed on goods and regulatory barriers on services.
The new president of the European Council, Charles Michel, has warned Brussels will not agree to a free trade deal that does not include Britain agreeing to abide by EU regulatory rules and product standards. “The EU is ready for the next phase,” he said after Johnson’s election win. “We will negotiate a future trade deal, which ensures a true level playing field,” he added.
Speaking in Strasbourg, France, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday that the Brexit transition deadline of December 2020 leaves “very little time” for the British and European sides to reach agreement. She warned that without an agreement by the end of 2020, Britain and the EU will face again a cliff-edge. “And this would clearly harm our interests,” she added.
EU officials have formally welcomed Johnson’s victory but are hoping the British prime minister has in mind a “close as possible future relationship.” They also point to Johnson’s post-election promise to seek “common ground” and to approach politics with a “new and generous spirit” after the rancor of the past three years.
A no-deal Brexit, which will disrupt British business and possibly push Britain into recession, according to the Bank of England, would make it harder for Johnson to fulfill the promises he has made to invest in Britain’s crumbling public services and infrastructure — pledges he needs to make good on if he’s to keep the support of the large numbers of traditional working-class Labour voters who switched their allegiance in the election and backed him.