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After Brexit ‘gets done’: the UK-EU relationship post-2020

In this post, Edward Knudsen looks ahead to the future of the UK-EU relationship in 2020 and beyond, arguing that the most vexing questions in the Brexit process lay ahead.

After nearly five years of turmoil, the United Kingdom’s December 12th general election finally provided some clarity regarding its tortured exit process from the European Union. Amid a collapse in support for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party among the working-class in Northern England, Boris Johnson’s Conservatives took their largest Parliamentary majority since the days of Margaret Thatcher. With a healthy buffer in the House of Commons, Johnson easily managed [1] to pass the Withdrawal Agreement by a 358-254 margin on Friday, 20 December. The United Kingdom will now officially leave the EU by the end of January 2020.

Although many European leaders expressed their regret that the UK would finally leave, there were at least some sighs of relief from the Continent that the lengthy Brexit process was due to end. Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands, remarked [2] that the result allows the EU to ‘now get on with Brexit.’ European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen struck an optimistic note, promising [3] an ‘unprecedented partnership’ after the process concludes.

The future of the UK-EU economic relationship

Despite the feeling of finality in the wake on the Conservatives’ victory, the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement provides certainty only over the terms of Britain’s departure from the EU, not the details of their future relationship. Indeed, the terms under which the UK and EU will interact after the end of 2020 remain deeply uncertain. With a large buffer in the House of Commons, Prime Minister Johnson has ample flexibility to shape the future relationship.

In the wake of the election, many suggested that Johnson would be able to pursue a ‘soft’ Brexit due to his large majority in Parliament. Unlike previous attempts to pass the Withdrawal Agreement, the hard-line Brexiteer European Research Group will no longer hold veto power over its passage. Without this constraint, the argument goes, Johnson would be free to seek closer ties with the EU and shied the UK economy from some of the potential damaging effects of a hard Brexit.

However, Johnson’s post-election rhetoric seems to contradict the notion that he will pursue closer economic relations with Europe. In the week after the election, he claimed [4] that there would be ‘no alignment’ with EU rules in a post-Brexit trade deal. The EU has long insisted that alignment is crucial for any agreement, leaving the viability of a successful negotiation in question.

Statements like this are sure to raise speculation about Britain adopting a low-tax, low-regulation ‘Singapore-on-Thames’ economic model to undercut the European Union on standards and social welfare. While there is very limited political mandate [5] for such a model, particularly given the Conservative’s gains in working-class Labour strongholds, the UK Government still may try to move in that direction. Johnson and his Ministers have repeatedly invoked [6] the idea of a ‘buccaneering Britain’ and many cabinet members have long been proponents [7] of smaller British state. German Chancellor Angela Markel seemed to allude to the possibility of regulatory competition from the UK, remarking that “we now have a competitor on our doorstep” following the election.

Regardless of which direction the UK wants to go, the ball is decidedly in their court. As Georgina Wright of the London-based Institute for Government writes [8], “the UK still needs to clarify the kind of deal it wants before negotiations can begin.” Given the tight timeline of only eleven months to ratify a new agreement – trade deals often taken years to negotiate – this clarification is urgently needed.

Political blessing or curse for the EU?

Despite the overall European malaise regarding the Brexit process, many European leaders have seen the UK’s departure from the EU as a potential boon to the political unity of the block. As the EU’s staunchest supporter of NATO, the UK has consistently blocked many defence-related proposals and sought to distance itself from the project of crafting ‘an ever-closer union’.

Even without the UK, however, defence cooperation on the Continent will be no easy task. Although political decision-making may be easier with Britain gone, its substantial military capabilities will be sorely missed. As former Dahrendorf post-doctoral Fellow Benjamin Martill has observed [9], the “the same issues encountered by the Europeans in the past are likely to persist in existing [defence] initiatives.” Brexit may strengthen the EU’s resolve to forge greater unity on defence initiatives, but political impasses and the large gap between European ambition and capabilities will not subside in the near future.

Another key area of concern is the potential for a revived Scottish independence movement. Over 62 per cent of Scotland voters voted to remain [10] in the EU in the 2016 referendum (compared to 48 per cent across the UK as a whole). The fact that Brexit is now certain to happen – as well as the fact that the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) won 48 of 55 seats in the December 12 election – will strengthen the case for independence. Johnson has promised not to consider a new IndyRef, but rumblings about a fragmenting UK will alarm European leaders with vibrant independence movements of their own, such as is the case with the Catalonians in Spain.

Although 2019 will close with a minor degree of certainty regarding the Brexit saga, 2020 is sure to see difficult questions re-emerge. Leaders on both sides of the English Channel may be at their wit’s end, but hardest parts of process lay ahead.

Edward Knudsen [11] is a Research Associate with the Dahrendorf Forum at the Hertie School in Berlin.