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Britain Has Left The EU: But The Question Of How Free It Wants To Be Remains

6 min read

As Boris Johnson delivered his long-awaited trade deal with the EU, he seemed unclear on whether he felt the UK was going to have its cake and eat it – trade freely with the bloc, while diverging from its laws.

Initially, he showed sensitivity towards Brussels by stopping short of calling it “cakeism”. Then he claimed it was just that, before alighting on a compromise: “Maybe it would be unduly provocative to say that this is a cakeist treaty; but it is certainly from the patisserie department.”

In reality, Britain has its liberty from EU law, but divergence from the bloc’s standards will come at a price – the cost of new tariffs. It gives rise to a simple question: to what extent will the UK exercise its freedom? The jury is not so much out as not even sitting; government insiders suggest the Prime Minister has not made up his mind.

Johnson hints he will use the treaty to show the UK will enjoy market access to its neighbours while striking new trade agreements around the world. When he rushed the EU (Future Relationship) Bill through the Commons, he said: “We will certainly be using our new-found legislative freedom to drive progress in sciences and those [green technology] investments across the whole UK. We will be free of EU state aid rules; we will be able to decide where and how we level up across our country, with new jobs and new hope.”

Conservative Eurosceptics, only two of whom abstained on the Bill with none voting against, intend to hold Johnson to his word. The ideologues are itching to see an early act of divergence. John Redwood, one of the abstainers, said: “We do not just want legal sovereignty; we also want practical sovereignty”, telling Johnson to “bring on the measures”.

Pragmatic Eurosceptics are more cautious. David Davis, the former Brexit secretary, argues the government should avoid acrimonious disputes with the EU, saying: “We have to devise a strategy that will keep them as neighbours and friends and maximise our joint benefits.”

An early symbolic act of divergence is likely, to illustrate the benefits of Brexit. The bigger question –how far the UK will depart from EU rules – will not be answered for a while, but cannot be put off forever.

The UK will have to negotiate a new fisheries agreement with the EU in 2025, with Brussels able to impose retaliatory measures if the UK wants to further reduce EU access to British waters. The whole treaty will come up for review after five years.

Will the UK drift further away from the huge trading bloc on its doorstep? Or will the Christmas Eve agreement become the platform for closer economic co-operation, as many 2016 Remainers hope?

Some even think this could happen under a Tory government if new trade deals around the world have not compensated for weaker EU links. The small band of Tory pro-Europeans believe a future Tory leadership contest might even be dominated by whether to rebuild the relationship with the EU. I think this is unlikely for many years. In the short term, the platform hoped for by Remainers might get smaller rather than bigger.

The EU is bracing itself for this. As one senior French official warns: “If there is to be a constant testing of divergence limits, on environmental and labour standards for instance; if the UK is determined to assert the value of Brexit by picking quarrels and asserting differences, there will be a tricky few years ahead.” The source continues: “This agreement will either provide a platform for a gradual rebuilding of deeper EU-UK relations in the years ahead … or just a minimum legal text which both sides can live with.”

Although Johnson claims his deal delivered on the wishes of the British people in the 2016 referendum, Europe is unlikely to die as a political issue. The downside for Johnson is that, as the architect of the future relationship, he will not be able to blame Brussels for problems stemming from a deal he must own. But there will be upsides. The agreement’s disputes mechanism is bound to be needed; Johnson might see domestic political advantage in taking on Brussels.

Disagreements over Northern Ireland are likely at some point, given its strong links to the single market. While Tory moderates will urge Johnson to move on from Brexit because the next election will not be fought on it, he will not throw away what he sees as one of his strongest cards. “Keep Brexit done” has already become the first slogan in the Tory battle plan for 2024.

Johnson believes Keir Starmer is vulnerable on the Europe issue, as the architect of Labour’s 2019 election pledge of a second EU referendum – particularly in the “red wall” seats which turned blue 13 months ago, and will likely decide the next election. Johnson claims Starmer’s policy is to take Britain back into the EU. This is not true, but it shows Johnson’s determination to preserve Brexit as a dividing line with Labour. Starmer wants to prevent this, but might struggle.

Remarkably, Brexit is now a bigger headache for the opposition leader than the Prime Minister. Labour remains divided on an issue on which the Tories are now mainly united. In total, 36 Labour MPs defied Starmer’s edict to vote for the deal, with three junior frontbenchers resigning. Starmer is desperate to show red wall voters Labour has moved on from Brexit, but his own party will be reluctant to let him.

Starmer will come under pressure from Labour’s many pro-Europeans to spell out how it would meet his goal to “build on” and “improve” Johnson’s agreement. He has signalled Brexit will not form part of Labour’s 2024 pitch but that is not under his sole control. The Labour party conference, in which constituency parties and trade unions each have half the votes, enjoys a big role in policymaking.

Labour Remainers will press for a pledge to take the UK back into the customs union. Ironically, Starmer might find himself in the position Jeremy Corbyn was when he was dragged by pro-EU members into promising another referendum. Then, Starmer was the darling of the Labour Europhiles and riding the wave; next time, he will be trying to hold back the tide.

Starmer will try to avoid handing the Tories ammunition with which to brand him the “Remainer-in-chief” or a “Remoaner lawyer.” He will be wary of proposing institutional links— another reason why the UK-EU relationship is unlikely to get closer in the coming years.

In the long run, a non-Tory government might opt for a closer relationship with the EU on the grounds that trade deals with the rest of the world had failed to compensate for friction with the UK’s biggest market. Indeed, over the longer term, Emmanuel Macron’s vision of a wider European architecture or partnership, reaching to Russia in the east and a post-Brexit UK in the west, is “entirely compatible” with this deal, say senior French sources.

Some ardent Remainers continue to dream that the UK will one day return to the EU fold – initially, perhaps, in the outer tier of a two-speed Europe if one materialises. I think they will have a very long wait. But the debate about the UK-EU relationship will continue. Despite Johnson’s claims to the contrary, Brexit is far from “done”. The surprise is that this suits Johnson much more than Starmer.

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