Richard North, 21/11/2019  

In the beginning, long before Article 50 had been invoked, many of us thought that the future relationship between the UK and the EU would also be settled in the two-year negotiation period foreseen by the Article. Thus, it was anticipated that, at the end of the negotiations, we would drop out of the EU and move seamlessly into a new relationship.

That this was not to be the case only really emerged after Mrs May had invoked the Article, the consequences of which would mean that there would have to be a gap between us leaving the EU and finalising a new agreement, during which period there would be no formal trading arrangements.

Pretty obviously, this was not a happy situation (except for those who thought that the WTO scenario was desirable), opening up a requirement for a transitional period – which Mrs May insisted on calling an "implementation" period.

Had Article 50 been thought through, perhaps the arrangements for transition might have been specifically laid out in the Treaty. But, as it wasn't, the agreement to allow a period was treated by the EU as a concession to the UK, included in the draft agreement of 14 November and endorsed by the European Council on 25 November 2018.

At a time when we were supposed to leave on 29 March, the period was set to end on 31 December 2020, with a one-off provision to extend by either one or two years. This had to be agreed by the end of June 2020, with no allowance for any further extensions. At the very latest, an agreement would have to be concluded by the end of 2022.

Why such a short period was agreed is something of a mystery. EU officials have been very explicit in their warnings that a comprehensive trade deal, along the lines of the EU-Canada trade agreement (CETA), would take "many years". Even the maximum period allowable seemed hardly long enough.

Despite extensions to the Article 50 negotiating period, with us not due to leave the EU until 31 January 2020, the transition period has not been changed, which means that the first period has been whittled down to a mere eleven months and the maximum period foreseen is now less than three years.

This, though, seems to be of no concern to prime minister in office Johnson. He has repeatedly stated that he has no intention of seeking an extension of the transition period past December 2020. In the event that he forms a new government after the general election, that means he is committing the UK to concluding negotiations on a trade agreement, from a standing start, in eleven months.

Justifying his stance, Johnson argues that our current membership of the EU means that we are already in "perfect" regulatory alignment with the EU, so that any negotiations would be quick and simple, allowing a speedy conclusion within the eleven month period.

But, while we are offered this bland assurance, Johnson has not specified the type of agreement he has in mind, nor the degree of regulatory alignment that he is aiming for at the conclusion of the deal. Furthermore, he has given no indication of what flanking policies he might be prepared to accept, such as alignment on employment law, competition policies, environment, data protection and, of course, freedom of movement.

On the other hand, Johnson remains publicly committed to the doctrine established during the referendum, pledging to "take back control of our borders, our money and our laws".

On the face of it, this creates a conflict between objectives. If the UK wants a comprehensive trade deal inside eleven months, it needs to "copy out" CETA, making only those changes necessary to accommodate specific national characteristics. But if it is content with a "best in class" free trade agreement, whereby the UK would be free to set its own regulatory standards, this will entail significant renegotiation.

According to the EU's Director General for Trade, Sabine Weyand, eleven months is not long enough for that. That leaves two likely options, a thin "bare bones" deal or a hard exit from the transition period without any deal.

Given Johnson's pre-election rhetoric, we can probably rule out a no-deal resolution, but a "bare bones" agreement might amount to little more than a tariff and quota-free agreement, plus a "rules of origin" pact and perhaps limited administrative arrangements on VAT, customs cooperation and data sharing. Even a mutual recognition agreement on conformity assessment for a limited number of sectors might be attainable in the time.

Even with these add-ons, the substance of the agreement would be thin, falling far short of a comprehensive free trade agreement, which in itself would represent a significant loss of market access to the EU. Nevertheless, for Johnson, it could still qualify as a "deal" – to be paraded in front of a gullible media, its acceptance guaranteed by compliant MPs who would constitute his working majority in the Commons.

That is possibly the greatest danger that we confront. Johnson could end up believing his own propaganda and take a "bare bones" agreement as sufficient to fulfil his obligation to settle a long-term relationship with the EU.

Obsessed with the idea of forging a trade deal with Trump's United States, he could – and most likely would – argue that any downside to the EU agreement would be more than compensated for by the riches awaiting the UK on the other side of the Atlantic.

By contrast, seeking an extension to the transition period could present Johnson with major political risks. With his campaign slogan, "Get Brexit Done", he has openly committed to avoiding any further delay in the Brexit process, stating that there is "absolutely no reason" for not concluding an agreement by the end of 2020.

In respect of the withdrawal agreement and his failure to honour his "do or die" promise to leave by 31 October, he has been able to blame an intransigent parliament for the delays. But, if he returns after the election with a working majority, he only has himself to blame if he then seeks to extend the transition period – unless, of course, he aims to put the EU in the frame.

Getting the EU to take the fall, however, seems unlikely. Both Juncker and Barnier have warned that a comprehensive trade deal would take "years" and, with Weyand joining the fray, Johnson cannot say that he was unaware of what was involved. Having already decided to finish talking by the end of next December, he must be ready to accept that the only option available to him is a "bare bones" deal.

With his withdrawal agreement, though, he agreed something which many believe is far worse than Mrs May's deal. Yet he is still quite capable of talking it up, describing it as "fantastic" and arguing that there is "no better outcome". With his slender grasp of the truth, talking up a "bare bones" deal would present him with few problems. If needs must, he would describe a train wreck as "fantastic".

And such a scenario is not at all far-fetched. Through the years, Johnson has shown that he has only a very limited understanding of the technicalities of EU membership – to say nothing of international trade. He could, therefore, easily convince himself that he had negotiated the best possible deal.

Where there would be a difference is that, rarely in his career has Johnson hung around long enough to take responsibility for his actions. Usually, he leaves others to clear up his messes. But in this instance, the effects of a "bare bones" deal would swiftly become apparent.

Should these be pointed out with sufficient force in time for Johnson to apply for an extension, he could simply tough it out and stretch out talks to the end of 2022, relying on his majority to see him through.

Articles such as this from Jeremy Warner certainly help, and even Rafael Behr is pitching in via the Guardian, asserting that Johnson's "snappy, inane slogan is the prelude to inevitable lies, betrayal and duplicity".

But if anyone thinks that mere criticism is going to deflect Johnson from his path or that he will spend next year "climbing the steep learning curve towards realisation that Britain thrives on frictionless access to the single market" – as Behr suggests – is probably in for a disappointment.

There is nothing quite so impervious to reason as a man who thinks he already knows the answers, and we now stand at risk of having such a man at the head of our government for the next five years. In the eleven months that follow the election, my guess is that we will see reality put on hold and he will go for a deal by the end of next December.

comments powered by Disqus

Log in

Sign THA

The Many, Not the Few