An absolute majority, overwhelming defeats, the irrevocability of Brexit. At first glance, the analysis is clean and simple. But  Bernardo Pires de Lima believes that what is to come will be anything but easy for Boris Johnson and the United Kingdom. 

England has voted overwhelmingly for the exit route from the European Union proposed by Boris Johnson, Scotland for the wish to remain in the European Union combined with a potential unilateral call for independence, already suggested by Nicola Sturgeon, and Northern Ireland has, for the first time, elected more nationalists than unionists, thus reviving the debate of the reunification of the two Irelands. This is the triangle that comes out of the UK general election: an internal identity clash, which will tend towards disaggregation. When Boris Johnson talks of a unity around Brexit, what he really means is that he has managed to forge a convergence within English nationalism, capable of granting him the overall majority he needs to close the first stage in the process, to be completed by 31 January 2020. If there is one topic emerging from the electoral results, it is precisely that of the lack of unity within the Kingdom, not its unity.

In Brussels as in the other European capitals, one could hear the sighs of relief. Everybody wants to close this chapter in a functioning Union, without British members of the European Parliament, a commissioner or a EU budgetary cheque. The erosion is widespread, from British society to all member states. In reality, the other 27 countries had already paved the way for Johnson’s victory when they allowed him to return to London, after October’s European Council, with a slightly altered deal, enough to gather support from the Commons. The next few weeks will confirm the legal transfer of the treaty into the internal system, with approvals from the House of Commons and the House of Lords. After that, the European Parliament will have the final say, and the transition period will begin on 1 February 2020.

In reality, Brexit will only be complete and official once that transition is over and all legal, trade and political adjustments are finalised. The scheduled date is 31 December 2020, but no one believes that a free-trade agreement and the details surrounding the future relationship can be settled between all parties in such a short space of time. One of the aspects that has permeated these last three years has been precisely the lack of debate around the terms of the future relationship between the UK and the EU. This stage has always been postponed indefinitely, but it could have helped to accommodate the current political debate if it had been addressed more maturely and treated with a compromise between the main parties. Unfortunately, as we know, this has never been the leading figures’ motto or wish. We still know very little, or nothing at all, about the terms of the relationship envisaged in terms of defence, data protection, science and trade, among other crucial areas. We will have to wait for an absolute Boris Johnson to share his strategic vision, preferably accompanied by a more comprehensive political commitment, capable of preventing future shocks. We have already seen Bojo, the skilled campaigner, we will now have to wait to meet Bojo, the visionary strategist. Here, too, I remain profoundly sceptical regarding apparitions.

The Conservative election manifesto unequivocally states that the transition schedule is immovable, but no one will be surprised if yet another promise is recanted by the political dynamics. If it does indeed happen, it will need to be actioned by 30 June 2020, and it could be dragged out until the end of 2022. In fact, one of the other main outcomes of this general election is how broad a back a lie can have in the international political setting: it encompasses everything, it dilutes everything, it is unlikely to be punished. If there one thing in common between Johnson and Trump, it is precisely this: their voters do not care whether or not they are compulsive liars, as long as the hatred for their opponents feeds their livers when it’s time to vote – Hillary Clinton and Jeremy Corbyn have easily fulfilled those requirements. What we know is that Boris Johnson will hardly want to get to 31 December 2020 without a closed free-trade agreement, a scenario which would expose the country to the onerous WTO rules (especially when devoid of an internal arbitration forum), this time having a more tremendous impact on the economy and detrimental effects on the implementation of the conservative government programme, which is dominated by heavy public investment. In other words, a long-term Brexit would collide with the mandate that Boris Johnson has achieved in these elections, and it would become unmanageable.

But the difficulties associated with an absolute majority do not end here. The prime minister will need to bring home cyclical victories on the various negotiation fronts about the trade deals he has promised to establish. The EU, who has exclusive competence in this matter, has objectively drawn experience and human resources from the member states in over 70 deals in force with third parties. In order to fill the gap left by exiting the single market (corresponding to over half of British imports and exports), London would need to achieve both a great deal with the EU (who is in a more solid position to negotiate), which would never be as advantageous as the one they currently have, and potentially to readapt those dozens of third-party deals to British bilateral logic. In addition to this, in order to fulfil Johnson’s ambition of a “global Britain great again”, he would also need to secure advantageous deals with the US, China and India from a different negotiating stance from the one the country had when it formed part of a great economic and trade block like the European Union.

To achieve all of this between February and December 2020, with US elections happening in the meantime, is unrealistic, to say the least, implying deadline extensions and the postponement of Brexit as a whole while managing the crisis of the union within the Kingdom. Whoever said that Boris Johnson’s absolute majority would be a walk in the park might have rushed to conclusions.

Bernardo Pires de Lima
Author of The B Side of Europe: a journey to the 28 capital cities (Tinta-da-china, 2019), Bernardo is also an associate fellow at the Portuguese Institute of International Relations and foreign affairs analyst for RTP, Antena 1 and Diário de Notícias. He was previously a non-resident fellow at SAIS Center for Transatlantic Relations, a MMF Fellow with the German Marshall Fund and an associate fellow with the Portuguese National Defense Institute.

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