Whether feared or longed for, Brexit day has arrived. It is positive for all sides that the process is thus far managed and ordered, with debts paid, rights guaranteed and borders still invisible on the island of Ireland. But in a difficult new phase of negotiations, as the UK and EU try to hammer out the terms of their relationship after 2020, Britain is at risk of repeating many of its mistakes from the withdrawal talks.
First, the government, through the negotiation timeline, has reduced its own room for manoeuvre. The failure of the initial withdrawal agreement and subsequent turbulent politics have reduced a planned 21-month transition to an 11-month one. Even though half the original negotiation time has been lost, 31 December 2020 remains in place and indeed has been written into UK law as the date the transition arrangement ends. Boris Johnson has followed Theresa May in investing symbolism and significance in an arbitrary date.
By promising not to extend negotiations, the UK is boxing itself in, creating domestic political barriers where it may well need flexibility. The familiar face of Michel Barnier, who proved adept in leading the withdrawal negotiations for the EU side, will be back in phase two to tell Britain the clock is ticking. This new timeline is intended to focus minds but more likely it will limit ambitions.
Second, this government has continued the pattern of its predecessor in making no effort to manage public expectations about the consequences of Brexit. It is naïve to have followed the last years of British politics and expect an outbreak of sobriety and levelheadedness. The entrenched positions of each side have offered little political space or electoral incentive for realism.
During the 2020 transition period, the UK will lose the political rights of EU membership but it will retain the benefits and obligations. Most citizens and business will not be able to tell the difference. But a reckoning is inevitable. There will come a moment when the effects of this slow-motion political revolution – particularly in the hard form envisioned by Boris Johnson – become real, when the trade-offs and compromises, especially for business and the economy, will bite. The public deserve some realism about the price of sovereignty.
Third, there is a risk that government remains underprepared. While its headline goals are clear – at least in terms of what it does not want – the UK government will need thorough, realistic and coherent proposals on what it wants in every area of negotiations, and crucially develop a process by which to make political trade-offs between the demands of different sectors and issues. The government must also then prepare for their implementation in every area. This would be a huge challenge even if the final destination was already known, which it is not.
Fourth, the continued uncertainty in the process means businesses and civil servants will again be left with little time to adapt to what will face them in January 2021 and must prepare for multiple outcomes.
‘Transition’ has always been a misleading term, since it implies clarity about the destination to which the UK–EU relationship will be transitioning. The government’s red lines for that future relationship provide a sketch: outside of the single market and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, with an independent trade policy and free movement ended.
But businesses and civil servants are not likely to know until very late in the process if the basis for future trade with the EU will be in the form of a free trade agreement, to be negotiated and implemented by the end of the year, or no trade deal at all. This last outcome is a realistic prospect.
During withdrawal negotiations, the extensions were both unlimited in number and required decisions only at the last moment. In this phase, the talks may only be extended once, and that decision must be taken six months from the final deadline. It is difficult to see circumstances in which Boris Johnson agrees to break a political promise and manifesto pledge when he still has six more months to achieve his desired outcome.
The UK, it is often noted, is already fully compliant with EU law and this shared starting point is often cited as a reason this negotiation will be simple, since the parties begin in alignment. But this novel negotiation will create new trade barriers in goods and services rather than remove them. Trade deals are often politically difficult since they create winners and losers. The Brexit negotiations, in terms of UK–EU trade at least, will generally create only different levels of losers, on both sides of the Channel.
That means difficult politics, challenging negotiations and hard compromises, another reason to expect some ugly politics along the way and accept that failure is a plausible outcome.
We do not yet know how Brexit will change Britain in the long term, whether a settled majority will ever come to view it as political folly or liberation, choice or inevitability. If its politically fragile union can withstand the pressures of the next few years, the UK may yet find a new stable position on the EU’s periphery and, after a period of economic adjustment, begin to address the many pressing domestic challenges which have suffered from neglect amid the all-consuming Brexit saga.
But whatever happens in this next chapter, the EU can no longer be an excuse for national problems. As the UK takes back control it also returns accountability. In the future, there will be no one else to credit or to blame.