Britain on the brink of Brexit, but plenty of pitfalls ahead
World / 27 December 2019, 06:52am / Bill Smith and Helen Maguire
After his electoral triumph, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is close to being able to claim he "got Brexit done." But can he rush through the complex negotiations on Britain's new relationship with the European Union in just 11 months?
Brussels/London (dpa) - Many EU leaders have welcomed the certainty brought by Prime Minister Boris Johnson's sweeping victory in a snap election that gave his Conservatives a large parliamentary majority, making passage of Brexit legislation largely a formality.
Since the election, Johnson has shown British voters his determination to complete Brexit by the end of 2020, with a promise to enshrine in law the deadline to negotiate a new deal on future relations.
That leaves him just 11 months from January 31, the date agreed for Britain to begin the formal severance of its ties to the European Union. Throughout this transition period, little will change as EU law continues to apply to Britain.
Many analysts say that timetable is all but impossible, warning that negotiations on future relations between London and Brussels could drag on for years.
EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, who will lead the talks for Brussels, reportedly called the end-of-2020 goal "unrealistic," adding that, with so little time, "we cannot do it all."
"We will do all we can to get what I call the 'vital minimum' to establish a relationship with the UK if that is the time scale," British daily The Independent quoted Barnier as saying in a leaked recording.
Given the short time frame, the EU will prioritize those issues where there is the risk of an "economic cliff-edge" at the end of 2020, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said following the British election.
The priority areas are those where "we have neither an international framework to fall back on, nor the possibility to take unilateral contingency measures," she added.
A bare-bones deal on core issues would likely centre on a basic free trade deal, coupled with so-called level playing field provisions - British pledges not to undercut EU standards - as well as governance issues spelling out how the agreement is enforced, plus the thorny question of EU fishing access to British waters.
Britain will face difficult trade-offs in the negotiations, with many eurosceptic Conservatives believing that "the main benefits of Brexit are the greater capacity to deregulate," according to former British EU ambassador Ivan Rogers.
"The publicly avowed Johnson intention is to be much more distant from the EU, and to adopt a model on both goods and services which is substantially more divergent from EU rules and standards," he said in a pre-election speech at the University of Glasgow.
Parallel negotiations would address internal and external security issues, such as how Britain interacts with EU police agency Europol or with European extradition requests, and what access London could have to EU security databases.
However, many warn of the challenging timetable Johnson has set himself.
"This is all a bit 'cloud-cuckoo-land'," said one EU diplomat on condition of anonymity. "In Brussels, hardly anyone believes that it is possible in 11 months to negotiate a comprehensive deal on Britain's future relationship with the EU."
The artificial threat of a cliff edge at the end of 2020 could backfire on Britain, as it stands to lose more than the EU, the diplomat argued.
All that could be negotiated in the time available is customs-free trade between Britain in the EU, while nothing much can be expected on services, estimated Juergen Matthes of the Cologne Institute for Economic Research in Germany.
This would lead to "significantly higher hurdles" for services industries from 2021, which would be a particular blow for London's financial centre, Matthes added.
Even then, 11 months might not leave enough time to finalize and ratify even a bare-bones trade agreement. Such a "no-deal" scenario for the end of 2020 still leaves businesses facing the prospect of more economic chaos and uncertainty.
In Britain, meanwhile, the 2016 vote for Brexit, by a majority of 52 per cent, precipitated a political crisis which Johnson hopes will end after his recent election victory.
"The time of Remain resistance is over: there is now no viable political - or legal - path to Brexit being blocked," prominent British legal commentator David Allen Green wrote in a post-election blog post, referring to those who want Britain to stay in the EU.
Green said the Conservative government, by ruling out any extension of the negotiating period beyond 2020, was once again "displaying the self-limiting bravado that served it so badly in the exit process."
The main opposition Labour party has accused Johnson of deliberately "resurrecting the threat of no-deal [Brexit] next year."
Rogers, who was involved in the early stage of Brexit negotiations, forecast that "the biggest crisis of Brexit to date actually still lies ahead of us in late 2020."
"Given Britain's stance, the fear is unfortunately that the Brexit drama will continue in the coming year," the EU diplomat added.