Brexit: latest developments

The months of pandemic-related problems and discontents on the both sides of the English Channel made the Brexit negotiations, which at the beginning of 2020 had been as the biggest issue of the year, fade into the background. At the same time, PM Boris Johnson’s popularity suffered significantly due to the government’s lack of consistency and competence in treating the pandemic, and he seemed to get somewhat tamed and lacking his habitual bravado after spending some time in hospital with coronavirus. 

However, Brexit with all its toxicity returned with vengeance during the last weeks. Complaining of the lack of progress in the negotiations (which are supposed to be concluded by the end of the year), Prime Minister threatened with a no-deal (“hard”) exit no tangible negotiation outcomes are achieved on the most sensitive issues, such as trade and migration, by mid-October. At the same time, a project of the bill presented to the House of Commons on September 7, stipulated that the government could, if deeming it necessary to protect national interests, override some of the clauses of the last-minute deal of 2019 that agreed on a border (and customs controls) between Northern Ireland and the rest of UK once it leaves the Union for good- all for the sake of avoiding a hard border between the two parts of the Emerald Island. Mr. Johnson claimed that such a border may in fact cut Northern Ireland from the mainland Britain, and grant Brussels with power to restrict the intra-UK trade. 

Despite raising a genuine policy challenge, the bill has aroused a wave of rage both among European and British politicians. All the living British Prime Ministers called this proposal an invitation to violate international law, and claimed that it would seriously harm Britain’s reputation as a negotiation partner, sowing deep distrust for years on. They were joined not only by senior commentators (such as Chris Patten, the last General Governor of Hong Kong) and, obviously, the Labour party- a number of Conservative MPs were also reported to disapprove of the bill and it was this last factor that later pushed Johnson to assuage the most controversial proposal. At the core of the rift is the Irish question: there are legitimate fears that any reneging by London on its earlier commitments may entail a hard border between the two parts of Ireland and hence endanger the Good Friday Agreement, which has guarded intercommunal peace in the troubled region for two decades already. It has reverberated on the other side of the Atlantic, as well. Key figures of the Democratic Party, Joe Biden and House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi, declared that adoption of this bill would preclude a U.S.-British trade deal, which is the ultimate goal of the Tory’s post-Brexit strategy. The reason is simple: the Irish lobby enjoys considerable influence in America, particularly in the Democratic Party, which is now running an electoral campaign. 

Why did Mr. Johnson decide to play a hard line after the months of relative calm? Just before the bill was introduced, the government concluded a promising free trade agreement with Japan, the first one among many similar deals promised after Brexit. It may have convinced Prime Minister that London’s negotiating position got significantly stronger. At the same time, plunging personal ratings could have induced Johnson to play his strong card- “Britain first” rhetoric appealing to his average voter. At the same time, there have been some legitimate reasons for raising negotiation stakes. The EU indeed is suspected of using the lockdown to prolong negotiations in the hope that London would, as it did last year, make major concessions when facing a hard deadline. It has been bellicose at times and has not responded symmetrically to a number of London’s steps; for example, it has not yet issued a provision for the British banks to operate in Europe without restrictions, although London has done a respective favour to EU-based banks. Johnson definitely understands that a unilateral deal (simple acceptance of Brussels’ terms on all the major issues) will not only hurt him personally, but will be genuinely harmful for Britain’s interests and status. On the other hand, the critique of the proposed bill from the point of view of international law is valid, too. The problem is that Brexit itself is inherently politicized and was legitimized solely by popular will, rather than ideological or rational considerations. Thus, it was very naïve to expect a smooth, technical process over the inherently divisive and controversial issue. In any case, it will hurt certain interests and obfuscate some legal norms- so the best (or the least bad) option is conducting negotiations until reaching a mid-point that will ensure the minimum requirements of the both parties are fulfilled. Given the economic shock of COVID (British and EU economies are expected to wither by 7-9% this year), confrontation over the exit deal is not the best strategy, so the parties will most probably, some grumbling notwithstanding, do their best to achieve an acceptable solution. Given the amount of security challenges in its immediate neighbourhood, the Union is not interested in a hostile divorce, either.