European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at the European Parliament, Sept. 16, 2020. Photo courtesy the European Parliament, licensed under CC-BY-4.0: © European Union 2020 – Source: EP. (creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/) .
I have never met anyone who exceeds European officialdom’s talent for procrastination – not even when I think back to the Bedtime Battles of my daughters’ childhoods.
So it comes as no surprise that the final terms of the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union remain unresolved. After all, it has been only four and a half years since the country’s voters shocked the political establishment with a 52%-48% vote to leave the EU. The original deadline of March 2019 for that departure came and went. So did several that followed.
When Prime Minister Boris Johnson took over the tenuous coalition government from his conservative predecessor Theresa May, he did so on a pledge to “get Brexit done.” He took a circuitous route to do it. First he excommunicated some of his less-committed fellow Tories. He then held an election last December, in which U.K. voters narrowly but clearly reaffirmed their decision by giving Johnson a renewed mandate. Johnson thereupon formally took the nation out of the EU at the end of January.
But informally, little changed. The United Kingdom has continued to follow the bloc’s rules and enjoy its trade privileges under an interim arrangement that expires at the end of 2020. For nearly this entire year, even as the pandemic ravaged Europe – Johnson himself suffered a severe bout of COVID-19 before recovering – negotiators from London and Brussels struggled to define Britain’s future relationship with the remaining 27 EU members.
The presumed worst-case scenario is a “hard Brexit.” In that event, the U.K. would have no deal and its relationship with the EU would be governed under World Trade Organization rules. This would mean new delays and formalities at the border, the imposition of new tariffs and quotas on goods, restrictions on cross-border service providers, and potential limitations on the ability of residents on either side of the English Channel to find new jobs and homes across the water.
While neither side would relish this result, the assumption is that the U.K. has more to lose. Its domestic market is a fraction of that of the EU, with which it conducts roughly half its trade. New border controls would create particular problems on the inland boundary between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the Irish Republic, which remains in the EU. The de facto integration within the EU of Ireland and Northern Ireland is a key component of the peace settlement that ended factional violence in Northern Ireland more than two decades ago.
Europe’s negotiators have used both the prospect of diminished market access and the implied threat of renewed violence on the Emerald Isle as a club to ensure that Britain does not exit the EU without some significant bruises. This intended drubbing would serve as a warning to other member nations who might someday contemplate leaving a bloc that will be even more dominated by Paris and Berlin once the U.K. departs. The desire to punish the U.K. explains why negotiators refuse to offer London the sort of trade arrangements enjoyed by non-EU neighbor countries Norway and Switzerland, or even the more limited benefits the bloc granted distant Canada.
Other British politicians might have bent beneath this pressure, but as far as this American can see, Johnson has not. My guess is that he probably will not, either, even as both sides pledge to “go the extra mile” to try to reach a deal at the last minute.
This is not to say Johnson will not make any concessions to reach an agreement. One of the reported sticking points is the amount of access to U.K. fisheries that Britons will offer Continental mariners. Like many disputes involving Europe’s food-producing sector, its political weight is grossly disproportionate to its economic value, on both sides. I can picture Johnson yielding a considerable degree of fishing freedom to Europe, with reciprocal (if perhaps less valuable) access to European waters for the U.K fleet.
But I expect he will draw a line at the EU’s demand for “reciprocity” in regulations, subsidy rules and taxation of British business to avoid what Europe considers unfair competition for its overregulated, bloated and frequently politicized industry. The point of Brexit was to get out from beneath Europe’s considerable dead weight. A particular nonstarter is Europe’s demand for what amounts to an internal border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the nation in the absence of agreement on coordinated regulatory standards. This demand is somewhat like Canada requiring the United States to adopt its standards before goods could move freely between Alaska and the Lower 48.
There is room for a deal, and perhaps the two sides will reach it. It might involve some nonbinding call for regulatory coordination, with each side reserving the right to impose tariffs or other restrictions if left unsatisfied. But I don’t doubt Johnson’s resolve to get Brexit done, with or without a trade deal with Europe. The worst case for Britain might be painstakingly rebuilding and diversifying its trading relationships. This may be more difficult, when it comes to the United States, under a Biden administration than would have been the case under President Donald Trump.
The worst case for Brussels and its army of bureaucrats is not having Britain leave the bloc without a deal. It is that Britain might succeed after asserting its independence. I won’t be surprised to see the Continent’s potentates preen and crow about their clout for now, and then do whatever it takes to save face rather than see it tested in the months and years to come.