Boris Johnson has kept his word, and the United Kingdom will finally leave the European Union at the end of January. In little more than six months as Prime Minister, Johnson has succeeded where Theresa May failed: strengthening the conservatives in a national election and carrying the UK out of the EU without further ado. Those who thought that this would close the last chapter of the Brexit saga, however, should reconsider their guess. With the beginning of the transition period, new pages still have to be written. While Johnson has delivered on his promise to “get Brexit done”, the consequences of the divorce risk to tear the fabric of the country and to make relations with Brussels even more complicated.
Internal problems are likely to arise from the very text of the Withdrawal Agreement concluded with the EU. Johnson’s mission was to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (key point of the 1999 Good Friday Agreement) while preventing the UK from remaining in a customs union with the EU with no time limit – the so-called “backstop to the backstop” that got Theresa May’s agreement rejected by Westminster. To achieve the two parallel and apparently irreconcilable goals, Johnson did not hesitate to turn Northern Ireland into a sort of “special administrative region”. Northern Ireland will apply EU duties and regulations, instead of those of the UK, to all goods passing through the country to reach Ireland – and thus entering the EU’s single market. In turn, customs checks will be carried out at ports and landing docks on the two sides of the Irish Sea. The waters separating the two largest British Isles will thus become a sort of internal border dividing the United Kingdom. It comes as no surprise, then, that representatives of Northern Ireland voted against Johnson’s agreement both in Westminster and in the Stormont, the country’s legislative assembly.
Northern Ireland, however, is not the only line along which the kingdom’s unity risks being torn: the question of Scottish independence has come back to the centre stage of British political debate. The country has a historically strong pro-European majority and has no intention of going gently into Johnson’s Brexit: Scottish premier Nicola Sturgeon has already promised a new referendum on the country’s independence from London. While the previous popular consultation in 2014 produced a slight victory for the “unionist” front, this time the prospect of exiting the EU and its single market could prove decisive in persuading the Scots about the arguments for independence. Should the parliament in Edinburgh approve a motion for a new referendum, the bill is likely to be blocked by Westminster before having the chance to be considered by the Queen. Two UK parliaments would then find themselves at odds, possibly resulting in a situation that could closely parallel recent events in Catalonia.
To further complicate the picture, Johnson’s agreement has been voted down also by the third devolved legislature of the UK, the Welsh Assembly. The Labour Welsh government motivated the decision out of fears that the protocol on Northern Ireland would damage the economy, by creating “frictions” at Welsh ports. The vote is even more significant in this case, as it comes from the only country that, together with England, voted in 2016 in favour of leaving the EU. All of the UK’s legislatures but Westminster have thus voted against what has been established by the central government in London. Brexit times, however, are exceptional times – as Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay explained: given the circumstances of the UK’s departure from the EU, Johnson’s government will go ahead anyway to deliver Brexit at the end of January.
Problems may also arise with respect to the relations between London and the rest of the EU. Here, Johnson’s determination to move past the Brexit impasse that had stalled British politics for the last three years could further complicate the delicate negotiations for a post-Brexit EU-UK trade agreement. The two sides are committed to working toward a new treaty to regulate their mutual obligations after the transition period expires at the end of this year. Johnson aims to strike a deal modelled after the EU-Canada CETA agreement, with freedom of movement for goods and services and “flexible cooperation” in other areas. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, however, has already warned that without freedom of movement for EU citizens, there can be no such freedom for goods, services and capital. Similarly, if an agreement on common standards in areas such as environmental protection, taxation and employment law is not reached, the UK will have limited access to the European single market – if any access at all.
Eleven months are not much for negotiations of this kind, which usually take years to be finalized. Thus, Johnson’s determination not to prolong the transition period after December 2020 can still lead to a much-dreaded no-deal Brexit. If a new agreement is not in place by the beginning of next year, the UK will become a “third country” to Brussels: a foreign nation with whom the EU has no specific, preferential agreement in place. Mutual relations between the two sides of the British Channel would then be regulated according to World Trade Organization rules; checks and tariffs attached. This outcome would further move the shaky ground of the ‘post-Brexit’ United Kingdom.
Antonio Villafranca is ISPI Research Coordinator and Co-Head of the Europe and Global Governance Centre