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Brexit’s Point of No Return


In one respect, the British election has brought certainty: the United Kingdom will in fact leave the EU in January. But Brexit won’t be “done” any time soon, neither for the UK nor for the EU.

© Ben Stansall/Pool via REUTERS

The British general election on December 12 can be seen as a de facto second referendum on Brexit. Certainly, other important issues were brought up during the campaign, most of them domestic. But the resounding victory for Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Conservatives can only be interpreted as a clear endorsement of his Brexit approach: to leave the EU at the end of January 2020 and to subsequently pursue his vision of a more distant future relationship with the EU.

One can argue with good reason that before the 2016 referendum, the UK did not have a well-informed debate about the consequences of leaving the EU. But after two-and-a-half years of negotiations with Brussels, many hours of debate in Parliament, and a broad public discussion, British voters had a better idea of what Brexit meant. For instance, they knew that that, once outside, trade with the EU would no longer be “frictionless” and that UK citizens would lose their freedom of movement within the EU. Nevertheless, British voters confirmed their 2016 decision. While the UK’s first-past-the-post system makes the Conservative victory look bigger than it was, the fact is that the party promising to “Get Brexit Done” won a clear majority to do just that.

For the EU, there is one immediate upside to the election outcome. There is now certainty that the UK’s withdrawal can take place in an orderly manner. The EU and its most affected member states had put in place serious contingency planning to prepare for “no-deal”. Once the parliament in Westminster and the European Parliament have ratified the withdrawal agreement Johnson renegotiated in the fall, the EU will have succeeded at defending its vital interests: EU unity has been maintained throughout the Brexit process; the rights of EU citizens living in the UK (and vice versa) have been secured; a solution for the Irish border question has been found; and the UK has signed up to a financial settlement of its membership obligations as well as to a political framework for future relationship.

Toward a New Cliff Edge

In the UK, the impact of leaving will not immediately be felt on February 1, 2020. The withdrawal agreement provides for a transition phase in which the UK essentially continues to enjoy all benefits of EU membership without participating in the EU institutions: Britain continues to be part of the single market and even free movement will continue.

And yet, most of the decisions that will shape the relationship between the UK and the EU—probably for decades—have yet to be taken. A key difference between the “Johnson deal” and that of his predecessor Theresa May (“May deal”) is that Johnson’s pursues—at least in economic terms—a rather distant relationship with the EU in the future. Norway, Switzerland and even Turkey have closer economic ties with the EU than the UK will have once the transition phase ends. The difficult decisions that this approach entails will become clear quite quickly once the second phase of the negotiations begins.

As for the EU, maintaining unity among the 27 member states was key to securing a withdrawal agreement within the given time frame. But it may be more difficult to stick together during the negotiations on the future relationship. EU members, having secured their key interests in the withdrawal agreement, may find it tempting to pursue national interests more assertively now in upcoming negotiations with a non-member state.

Also, there will be enormous time pressure. The transition phase is limited to the end of 2020 unless an extension of one or two years is mutually agreed by June 2020. In their manifesto, the Tories committed to not extending the transition period. And in contrast to the earlier two-year withdrawal negotiations period which started in March 2017, two safety valves no longer exist: a last minute extension, called for by the UK on three occasions in order to avoid a disorderly withdrawal, is no longer an option. And revoking Article 50 (which set the withdrawal process in motion) will no longer be possible, either. The new cliff-edge at the end of the transition may be less steep, but much more difficult to avoid.

Stay or Go?

The medium- and long-term impact Brexit will have on Scotland’s and Northern Ireland’s place in the UK also difficult to assess. While the Scottish Nationalists (SNP) interpret their strong showing as a mandate to pursue a second referendum on independence, Johnson has rejected the idea, while most polls continue to show a narrow majority for Scotland staying in the UK. And a referendum in  in (Northern) Ireland is even less of an issue at the moment.

However, with the SNP ascendant, the question of Scottish independence is not going away. And the fact that Northern Ireland will remain in the EU’s market for goods for all practical purposes and that there will eventually be customs checks in the Irish sea may contribute to a change in dynamic there too.

In both cases, the effect would not be limited to the UK itself or UK-Irish relations: The EU would have to respond to both a membership application from an independent Scotland or a move towards the unification of Ireland. So the EU will want to watch domestic developments in the UK closely even after Brexit.

At the same time, there is a very sobering dimension to the election result for the EU itself. Anyone who still hoped for a reversal of the 2016 referendum result can now give up that dream. In addition, the EU can no longer console itself with the notion that the rejection of membership in one of the EU’s biggest, most prosperous member states could be explained by dissatisfaction with domestic policy issues or as being a result of poor information about the consequences of leaving the EU. If the withdrawal negotiations demonstrated in detail the difficulties of departure from the EU, voters in the UK essentially shrugged them off. In that sense, the UK election serves as a reminder for the remaining EU members that popular support for European integration should never be taken for granted.