Brexit weekly briefing: talks on UK's future to drag on beyond 2020

Still a huge amount of detail to be ironed out before Brexit is finally ‘done’

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In case you spent the past few days on another planet, Boris Johnson secured an emphatic victory in the UK’s general election as voters backed his promise to “get Brexit done” and take the country out of the EU by 31 January.

The Conservative party captured 365 of the 650 seats in the Commons, a comfortable majority of well over 70 and the party’s best showing in a parliamentary election since Margaret Thatcher’s win back in 1987.

Labour, meanwhile, was plunged into bitter recriminations after the party won just 203 seats, its worst result in 84 years, as voters who had overwhelmingly voted to leave shied away from from the party’s ambiguous Brexit policy.

Johnson’s gamble on calling an early vote to break MPs’ deadlock over Brexit paid off, and he will now move swiftly to ratify his deal. Brexit was the “irrefutable, irresistible, unarguable decision of the British people”, the prime minister said. It will not, however, be plain sailing.

The size of the Tory majority was welcomed at an EU summit in Brussels, with leaders feeling it would give Johnson free rein to decide his negotiating objectives and compromise in the talks where necessary. They are now waiting to see what incarnation of the PM will emerge now he is secure in Downing Street.

But the French president warned Johnson continued regulatory harmonisation would be the price for protecting the flow of UK-EU trade. “The more ambitious the trade deal, the more we need regulatory harmonisation,” Emmanuel Macron said.

The new European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said talks on the future relationship would drag on beyond 2020, with certain parts of the deal needing to be prioritised and others left for later. EU officials could take the initiative and request an extension themselves as a way out of the problem.

Johnson has repeatedly said he would not extend the 11-month transition period during which the talks are supposed to be concluded and Michael Gove, a senior minister, confirmed categorically on Monday that the UK would have a trade deal with the EU by the end of next year.

Sir Ivan Rogers, however, warned that Johnson’s large majority would not hand him any extra power in his negotiations with Brussels and that the time pressures created by his commitment not to extend the transition period could force Britain into accepting major concessions.

The UK’s former envoy to the EU added that Johnson had still not resolved the central contradiction in his plans between wanting Britain to diverge from EU rules, while also wanting a comprehensive trade deal in place in just a year’s time.

Raoul Ruparel, Theresa May’s former special adviser on exiting the EU, said the UK did not appear to be “match fit” for the next phase of negotiations, with “a huge amount of work to be done” on the detail of what the UK wants and Whitehall “not ready to negotiate such a complex and wide-ranging agreement”.

What next

The new government planned to give Johnson’s Brexit bill its first and second readings and first vote on Friday after two days of swearing-in of MPs, the state opening of parliament and the Queen’s speech, Downing Street has said.

After that Johnson will have only 15 or 16 sitting days left before 31 January to get the withdrawal agreement bill over the line, with some amendments possible – most likely on Northern Ireland trade and any request to extend the transition period extension, over which parliament may well want a say.

The European parliament must also ratify the withdrawal agreement, with two plenary sessions planned on 13 and 29 January, in principle allowing trade talks to start from 1 February.

That looks unlikely, however, since the withdrawal bill requires a prior statement of negotiating objectives to be first approved by the Commons – meaning Johnson and the government are finally going to have to say what form they really want the future relationship to take: Canada-plus? EEA? Norway?

This is likely to be the central question of the coming few weeks.

That’s on top of: the Department for Exiting the EU merging (rumour has it) with the Department for International Trade; HMRC starting work on all the new processes and systems it will need in Northern Ireland; and specialised committees being set up to work out the details for UK-Northern Ireland trade.

Best of the rest

Nicola Sturgeon has said the Scottish National party’s “overwhelming” election victory – it won 48 of the country’s 59 Westminster seats – gave her a clear mandate to hold a new independence referendum.

Despite Johnson’s rejection of any such move, Scotland’s first minister said she would publish the blueprint for a second referendum next week.

Jo Swinson quit as Liberal Democrat leader and apologised to her party for a dismal election in which she lost her seat and the party slipped to 11 MPs – but said she did not regret fighting on a defiantly pro-remain platform.

Top comment

In the Guardian, Timothy Garton Ash says with Brexit now a certainty, we can still champion the values we share with millions of other Europeans:

The battle to keep Britain in the EU is lost; the battle for a European England has only just begun. When we remainers marched in our hundreds of thousands through the streets of London, bearing our improvised posters and European flags, we were not just defending British membership in a particular set of European institutions. We were also defending a certain idea of Britain and, within that, a certain idea of England: open, tolerant, internationalist, civic and civil, attentive to the social foundations of individual liberty and not just to its raw economic expression. These are values we share with millions of other Europeans. In this sense, we were also standing up for a European England. And we can do so still. In this hour of defeat I feel impelled to say, with George Orwell: I believe in England, and I believe that we shall go forward.

Top tweet

The always well-informed Charles Grant, co-founder of the Centre for European Reform, reads the tea leaves. Will he be right?

The election gives BJ the freedom to extend the transition, and to align UK & EU rules, if he wants to. He will probably do this, since leaving the transition without an FTA would be painful for the economy. He can take on ERG since he is master of his party. A thread. @CER_EU /1

— Charles Grant (@CER_Grant) December 13, 2019


Jon Henley Europe correspondent

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