After nearly three years of emergency sittings of Parliament, crisis EU summits and last-minute deals, November 2019 was the month when nothing really happened as far as Brexit is concerned. This, of course, was because Prime Minister Boris Johnson finally got the general election which he had repeatedly said that he did not want and, as is traditional in the UK, the whole political system then went into what has become known as “purdah”.
This is the period between the announcement of an election and the final results being delivered during which no public money can be spent which might influence the outcome of the vote. Effectively this means that, across all levels of government, national and local, nothing is issued in the way of legislation, press releases or consultations that might have any political implications.
The Donalds didn't get the memo
This included, for example, Nigel Farage having to step down from his regular phone-in programme on LBC. Just before the election rules came into play, however, he had time to take a call from “Donald from Washington” who turned out to be the President of the United States. Mr Trump advised the Brexit Party leader that he might like to consider doing a deal with Boris Johnson as together they would be an “unstoppable force”. He also poured scorn on Jeremy Corbyn's claims that the Conservatives would be prepared to “sell off” the NHS to American pharmaceutical firms in order to clinch a trade deal with the US. The Labour leader would, President Trump, suggested, take Britain to “such bad places” if he won the election.
Also demonstrating little regard for the rules of purdah, and the EU’s own restrictions on its officials interfering in the politics of a Member State, European Council President Donald Tusk warned that Brexit could leave the UK a “second-rate player” and urged British voters not to give up on reversing the 2016 referendum decision. Mr Tusk, who has consistently warned against leaving the EU, is about to step down at the end of his five-year term of office. He presumably felt that he had nothing left to lose by making his position crystal clear so concluded by saying that Brexit would likely mark the “real end of the British Empire”.
It remains to be seen whether the electorate follows his advice but Mr Farage certainly seemed to pay attention to his friend in Washington. Having already announced that he would not be personally standing in a constituency, he then withdraw the Brexit Party’s candidates in the 317 seats that the Conservatives won in the last election. This was after a suggested alliance between the two parties had been rebuffed by Mr Johnson and despite Mr Farage describing the Prime Minister’s proposed deal as BRINO (Brexit-in-name-only). “In a sense,” he said, “we now have a Leave alliance — it’s just that we’ve done it unilaterally.”
The EU has its own problems at the moment as the woman chosen to replace Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, Ursula von der Leyen, has struggled to put her team together in the face of opposition to several national candidates from the European Parliament. To add to her worries, the UK has said that the restrictions imposed during the election period mean that it cannot make such a politically sensitive appointment.
This poses a dilemma for Ms von der Leyen as EU law states that the European Commission should include a representative from every Member State and the UK, of course, remains a Member until Brexit. If the appointment is not made, then there are fears in Brussels that any decisions taken by the new Commission could be subject further down the line to legal challenge on the grounds that they were agreed by an unlawfully constituted body.
Urging the Government to think again, the Institute for Government suggested that, even if only in post for a few weeks, a UK Commissioner would get first-hand information on the new Commission and its plans. This argument failed to persuade the Prime Minister who has stuck by his decision not to appoint, despite the EU warning that it might have to take legal action to compel the UK to abide by its rules.
Will Brexit be done after the election?
The Conservative’s 2019 election manifesto is 59 pages long but, according to the Daily Telegraph, only three words in it matter: “Get Brexit done”. Mr Johnson has said that, if he is returned with a majority on 12 December, then he will bring his “oven-ready” deal with the EU back to Parliament and have it passed before Christmas. The UK can then leave the EU in January 2020 and Brexit will be accomplished. However, as numerous commentators have noted, this is taking a very simplistic approach to a complicated process.
The UK can, in that scenario, certainly cease to be a full Member of the Union and will no longer have a Commissioner or the right to elect Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). What will immediately be starting, however, is a transition period that will mean that during 2020 the UK will remain subject to all the rules of the EU’s single market and customs union. This is to allow time for the two sides to move onto the next, and even more complicated, stage of negotiations — the proposed trade agreement.
If the two sides cannot reach agreement by December, there is the possibility of adding a further two years to the negotiation period but, under pressure from Mr Farage, the Prime Minister has already said that he will not be taking advantage of that option. So he has in effect given himself 11 months to conclude a trade deal and, if that proves impossible, then businesses in the UK will again be looking at the possibility of having to trade with the other Member States on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms in January 2021.
Can a deal be done?
Yes, say the Prime Minister’s supporters, because both side are starting from essentially the same position given that the UK already applies all the rules and standards that the EU requires from its partners. This should be one of the easiest trade deals ever, they say. Unfortunately this brings back memories of former Brexit Secretary David Davis saying that free trade deals covering an area “massively greater than the EU” would be in place by the time the UK left the Union and the then Trade Secretary Liam Fox arguing that striking an agreement with the EU would be “one of the easiest deals in human history”.
Remember that what the two sides have been arguing about for the last two years was supposed to be the easy part: the Withdrawal Agreement, which sets out the terms of the separation with regard to the rights of citizens, the money owed by the UK and the need to protect the Irish border. What will be on the table in January, if Mr Johnson, is successful, will be the infinitely more complicated details of trade between the two sides which will involve arrangements touching every section of the economy.
Deals with partners such as Japan, Canada and South Korea have taken the Union five or six years to complete and have ratified, and EU diplomats and other officials are seemingly united in their belief that, however close the two sides are on 1 January 2020, they will not have time to conclude a deal by the end of the year.
The indications are that a quick trade deal would be on offer from the EU, with zero tariffs on goods but with certain strings attached, notably by way of the “level playing field provisions”. These would require the UK to abide by the EU’s environmental regulations, for example, and its state aid rules. It is hard to see Mr Johnson accepting such terms and difficult to imagine the EU backing down and allowing UK companies a competitive advantage by being able to ignore the level playing field. And that is only one part of the trade deal: how long will it take to sort out fishing rights with Mr Johnson committed to sovereignty over UK waters while Spain, France, the Netherlands and Denmark threaten to close their markets to the resulting catches if their own boats are not allowed to fish in British zones?
So complicated negotiations are inevitable and the prospect of yet another extension being needed is already in view, even before the current one has expired. Will the Prime Minister go back on his promise not to extend the talks past December 2020? Will he renege on his commitments to UK fishermen to get through a deal in other sectors? Will the long-awaited trade deals with countries outside the Union start to appear or will potential partners want to see the shape of future UK-EU trade relations before agreeing anything? Lots of unanswered questions and only one certainty: Brexit will not be “done” by the end of 2019 or anytime soon.
Last reviewed 29 November 2019