In the wake of Boris Johnson’s resounding victory in the British election, Brexit looks set to happen on the date envisaged, 31 January, and on the terms agreed. But Brexit (the UK’s formal departure from the EU), despite all the energy spent on it, has only just begun. The difficult part is to come, with talks on the UK’s future relationship with the EU, the future trade agreement, but also matters such as defence, security, research, data protection and other issues. They all matter a great deal to both sides and are what will really determine the kind of Brexit that ultimately emerges. There is no mandate for such an agreement, nor was this, despite its importance, an issue of serious debate in the election campaign. There is no clear idea, at least not publicly, of what Johnson seeks, beyond free trade, with the constant temptation at the back of his mind of transforming the UK into Europe’s Great Singapore, something the EU will not countenance for fear of social and other kinds of dumping.
Johnson has promised to get this agreement –the transition– signed off by the end of 2020, although such a complex question may require more time, and reopen issues that lie at the heart of Brexit sores, such as the Irish question (the absence of a physical border between Northern Ireland and the Republic). Or, in the absence of agreement, it may lead to a new cliff-edge, a new no-deal at the end of next year, so that relations fall under the terms of the beleaguered World Trade Organisation. For the EU, 2020 could continue to be dominated by Brexit. Or possibly not?
The EU has succeeded in quarantining Brexit. First the EU27 closed ranks amid attempts by London to divide them. Their unity was critical. The new Commission under Ursula von der Leyen has also managed to quarantine it by entrusting Michel Barnier, no longer as a Commissioner, to continue leading the talks with the British side, a sound decision, because Barnier has shown tact and savoir faire.
The impact of this election on Britain is going to go beyond a single term in office, not only because of Brexit but also because of the size of the victory secured by Johnson who, with his obsessive tendency to compare himself with Churchill, will want to make his mark on the times; because of the rejection of the radical economic proposal, and confusion about EU withdrawal, represented by Jeremy Corbyn and the fate of the labour movement; because of the progress made by the Scottish nationalists, advocates of remaining in the EU, and the possibility of a second independence referendum; and because of the much-heralded end of austerity policies.
While Britons were voting, the European Council in Brussels was debating the terms of its ambitious European Green Deal, set out by von der Leyen, and agreed (barring coal-rich Poland, which is needed in this unanimity-based Europe) to cut emissions to zero by 2050. The EU has resolved to acquire a new geopolitical outlook, which still remains to be put into practice beyond some initial steps in industrial-military policy. In other words, the EU has inoculated itself against Brexit, which is undoubtedly a setback to the idea of a European community, but which no other member state wants to emulate.
From 1 February, once Brexit has been signed, the UK will look to the world to reposition itself on the global stage. The ‘Global Britain’ idea of Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, was a mirage. It will need to think about what type of relations it can and wants to have with the EU and the rest of the world. The British, despite the Brexit mistake, are good when it comes to responding to critical challenges. Under Johnson they are already looking optimistically towards Washington and the promises made by Trump, a Brexit supporter due to his anti-EU stance. The US defends its own interests above all, however, as the following example shows: the US is vying with the UK for a contract to cooperate on building a new fighter jet for Japan to replace its F-2s. It is an instance of the contradictions in which the UK could find itself outside the EU. Similarly with China, which London is relying on at the risk of enraging Trump. The fact remains that despite the limited agreement (with the election looming next November) to partially settle a trade war that runs counter to the interests of many US agricultural and industrial producers, the US is in economic, technological, military, geopolitical and ideological competition with Beijing.
Johnson will get Brexit done, but he has not explained what will come next. This is particularly remarkable given that the UK’s largest economic and trading partner is, and will continue to be, the EU. Johnson is perfectly well aware of this. His parliamentary majority will make him less reliant in Westminster on the most hard-line Conservatives in terms of the type of Brexit and he will not depend on the Northern Irish Democratic Unionists. But he still has not decided his priorities or his model. Despite the political declaration agreed with Brussels –in which one of the key terms was ‘ambitious’–, surprises and conflicts lie in store.