How Britain could still face a cliff-edge Brexit
Share this article:
BRUSSELS - "Get Brexit Done", British
Prime Minister Boris Johnson's election campaign catchphrase
that promises a clean departure from the European Union, is much
easier said than done.
Even if Johnson wins next month's election and takes Britain
out of the bloc on Jan. 31, his government and the other 27
member states of the EU will have an 11-month transition period
to negotiate a future relationship.
If they fail to hammer out a new trade deal by the end of
2020, which experts say is likely, and they fail to agree to
extend the transition period for more negotiations, Britain will
effectively be facing a disorderly no-deal Brexit again.
The following explains how that could unfold.
Brexit 'gets done' on January 31
If Johnson secures a parliamentary majority in Britain's
Dec. 12 vote, as opinion polls currently suggest he will, he
will move quickly to put the Withdrawal Agreement reached with
the EU27 last month through a more compliant parliament.
Jill Rutter, an expert at UK in a Changing Europe
think-tank, said that getting the bill through before the end of
December looks impossible but it could be fast-tracked to ensure
a formal exit from the EU by the deadline of Jan. 31.
11 months until next deadline
If that were to succeed, after Jan. 31 Britain will enter a
transition period during which it will negotiate a new long-term
relationship with the EU27.
This could run until the end of December 2022 under the
current rules, but in its election manifesto released on Sunday,
Johnson's Conservative Party set a hard deadline of the end of
Johnson's government and some EU officials have said it
would not be difficult for Britain to reach a trade agreement in
11 months because they have common regulatory starting points.
"We already start from a position where the EU and the UK is
aligned, we are agreed on all the key principles," Britain's
finance minister, Sajid Javid said on Sunday.
Not enough time
However, a senior EU diplomat said that only in his "wildest
dreams" could he envisage settlement of a future relationship by
the end of next year.
The deadline is unrealistic, not least because conventional
free trade agreement negotiations tend to take place over years,
with regular breaks between negotiating rounds, said Joe Owen of
the Institute for Government.
But even if they aimed for what officials in Brussels have
described as a "bare bones" free trade agreement, the two sides
would run into disagreement on "level playing", or fair
competitions provisions on labour, environment, state aid and
The EU would insist on these to protect its single market
from dumping prices or other types of unfair competition from
Britain, a big economy and an immediate neighbour.
"If Johnson...wants any chance of getting a deal on future
relations negotiated by the end of 2020, then he would need to
make some big concessions," Owen said. "Tariff and quota free
trade will come at a price – following EU rules and, most
likely, a continued role for the European Court of Justice."
Ratification and risk of veto
If London and Brussels did manage to reach agreement on deal
on future relations by the end of next December, there would be
many procedural hurdles to clear.
It would require approval in the European Council of member
states, and ratification by the European Parliament, national
parliaments and subnational parliaments such as Belgium's three
regional assemblies, which could potentially veto it.
Owen said the process could take years and will cast a
shadow over the talks.
"A deal has to be agreed and ratified by December 2020 or
the UK will be facing its next no-deal cliff edge – the point at
which arrangements covering everything except for the Irish
border, citizens' rights and the UK's financial settlement will
simply fall away," he said.
Will Johnson have to extend again?
Johnson would not have long after the future relationship
talks get under way to avoid the cliff edge. If he wants an
extension by one or two years the transition period beyond the
end of next December, he must request it by June 30, 2020.
"No extension risks leaving either with no deal, or a
minimalist deal which looks quite like no deal. At the moment
that seems to be where the government is heading," said Rutter.