UK election: after Conservative sweep, what’s next for Brexit and beyond?
“What does the Conservative election victory mean for Brexit?”
By Dominic Walsh and Stephen Booth, courtesy of Open Europe
Boris Johnson’s Conservatives secured a comfortable parliamentary majority in yesterday’s general election. With just one seat left to declare, the Conservatives have 364 seats – a majority of 78. Labour have won just 203 seats, the Scottish National Party (SNP) 48 seats, and the Liberal Democrats 11 seats. The result of the election provides clarity over the immediate next steps for the Brexit process, but the long-term picture is less clear.
It is now certain that the UK will leave the EU at the end of January
The Government now has a clear majority to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB), which implements the deal it reached with the EU back in October. Parliament will return on Tuesday for the election of the Speaker of the House of Commons, with a Queen’s Speech to follow later in the week. The Conservative manifesto commits the government to begin the process of passing the WAB through the House of Commons before the Christmas recess, to ensure the Bill’s passage through the Commons and the Lords is complete before the Article 50 deadline on 31 January. The European Parliament’s ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement is expected to be a formality.
Although there will undoubtedly be lively debates in Parliament over the WAB – such as over Parliament’s role in the next phase of the negotiations – the Bill’s passage is no longer in doubt. With a large majority and, for now, a party united on Brexit, the Conservatives will be able to pass the Bill and see off any hostile amendments tabled by opposition parties or the House of Lords.
The broad contours of 2020 are taking shape
Once the UK enters the transition period on 1 February 2020, negotiations on the future UK-EU relationship will begin in earnest. The key dates and potential flashpoints over the next twelve months are outlined in the table below.
One of the biggest milestones will be 30 June 2020, the deadline for the UK and EU to extend the transition period in the Withdrawal Agreement. The Conservative election campaign and manifesto ruled out an extension, a promise which the Prime Minister is likely to keep. Opting to extend the transition would not only be seen as breaking an election promise, but also risks triggering a difficult negotiation with the EU about additional financial contributions and fishing rights without the guarantee of a future trade agreement as a result. (If it transpires that more time is required to ratify and implement an agreed deal, then that is a different question and there may be options available to the UK and EU – explored by Open Europe’s Dominic Walsh here).
Reaching a deal with the EU in 11 months will be challenging, but not impossible. The emerging argument in some quarters that Johnson will use his new-found room for manoeuvre to “pivot” towards a softer Brexit seems at odds with what we know about Johnson’s own strong preference for divergence from the EU. Certainly, the tight timescale will narrow the options for both sides, and is likely to point towards a looser economic relationship based on a free trade agreement (FTA), rather than the more comprehensive and bespoke partnership favoured by former Prime Minister Theresa May. The EU’s approach to date simply reinforces this dynamic. Firstly, the EU has framed Brexit as a binary choice between a high alignment, high market access relationship (like Norway) and a low alignment, low access relationship (like Canada). The EU also takes the view that the short timescale points towards a fairly minimalist deal; their Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier told MEPs recently, “We will do all we can to get what I call the ‘vital minimum’ to establish a relationship with the UK if that [11 months] is the time scale.”
What might a quick, “bare bones” deal look like? We know that the UK is likely to seek zero-tariff and zero-quota trade in goods. In return, the EU is likely to demand the UK signs up to “level playing field” obligations to ensure fair competition on issues such as environmental and social standards and state aid. As with any FTA, detailed technical negotiations will determine the eventual balance of market access versus obligations, but the broad parameters are unlikely to change fundamentally. It is worth remembering that the level-playing field obligations in the defunct UK-wide backstop, which represented a greater level of market access for goods than Johnson is likely to be seeking, were relatively limited and the enforcement mechanisms were weak. The technical negotiation over rules of origin requirements will be important in determining how effectively UK and EU businesses can actually take advantage of tariff-free trade. EU demands for access to UK fishing waters, a key priority for member states, will be controversial. Finally, there will need to be overarching provisions on the governance and implementation of the agreement. Together, these five issues – tariffs, level playing field, fishing, rules of origin and governance – are likely to form the building blocks of a “bare bones” deal, though all will be subject to negotiation. Other issues, such as services, could be left for future negotiations or subject to very limited provisions.
If the UK and EU do not extend the transition period and then fail to conclude a deal by December, the legal default would be a WTO terms relationship – a version of ‘No Deal’ (though this would be different to leaving the EU without a Withdrawal Agreement in place). When Theresa May was Prime Minister, she often repeated her claim that ‘No Deal is better than a bad deal’ – yet after she lost her majority, this was no longer a credible maxim given Parliament’s strong opposition to No Deal. Johnson, by contrast, will be able to make that claim knowing that he can deliver it politically at home, and that may change the dynamic of the negotiations in the next phase.
At the same time, foreign policy and geopolitics could play a greater role in the UK-EU negotiations in the next phase. French President Emmanuel Macron’s mooted “European Security Council” is not only borne of his frustration with the EU’s impotence on foreign policy, it appears specifically designed as a means of enabling the UK to remain within the “European family”. The UK might well ask what it will get in return for ensuring the success of such a venture.
This election result illustrates the profound changes in the UK’s domestic political landscape
The Conservative majority and the likely passage of the Withdrawal Agreement does not end the Brexit process; there will be further negotiations with the EU on the future relationship, with other countries across the globe and domestic implications too. Nevertheless, leaving the EU on 31 January will be a significant milestone which will move the process on to the next stage – and may take some of the political heat out of the issue.
While the transition period and the Article 50 period are almost identical in economic terms, the political impact of leaving the EU on the UK’s domestic debate should not be underestimated. With staying in the EU off the table, the Remain side of the debate will face a choice: accept the reality of the UK’s departure and try to influence the shape of Brexit, or begin a campaign for ‘Rejoin’ – a very different prospect to ‘Remain.’ Both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats will need to weigh up this choice. Both parties are likely to face imminent leadership elections, with Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson having lost her seat and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn announcing last night he would not lead the party into the next general election.
The results also pose challenging questions for the future of the UK’s union. The SNP put in a strong performance – winning 48 seats out of 59, including 7 formally held by the Scottish Conservatives. Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, there will be more nationalist MPs than unionist MPs for the first time, as the DUP lost two seats in Belfast (one each to Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour Party).
More broadly, leaving the EU will give UK Governments greater freedom over policy areas that have hitherto been partly outsourced to the EU, such as trade, immigration and some areas of regulation. “Taking back control” will expand the battleground over domestic policy. The next election may not be about Brexit per se, but the decisions the UK chooses to make with its new-found freedom will certainly play a major role. It seems inevitable that the UK’s future economic performance will, whether accurately or not, be interpreted heavily through the prism of Brexit. The UK will also need to think seriously about its preferred place in the world, a question which goes far beyond the detail of its trading relationship with the EU.
What does the election result mean for the EU?
As the UK digests the results of the election, EU leaders are meeting at the European Council in Brussels – with Brexit on the agenda. Today’s Council conclusions will be worth keeping an eye on for any clues as to how the EU will approach the next phase. While some in the EU will privately be sorry to see the UK’s departure confirmed, there have already been signs that the EU were behaving as if the UK had already left – for example, by pressing ahead with new integrationist measures on foreign policy and a ‘green new deal.’ The EU will welcome the new clarity brought by a majority Government – Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said this morning that “it’s a positive thing that we have a decisive outcome in Britain.” From the EU’s perspective, a majority Government in the UK is likely to make the Brexit process less chaotic – although a united and focused UK may also be a tougher negotiating prospect.
Dominic Walsh joined Open Europe in 2017. He holds an MA in British Politics and Contemporary History at King’s College London, where he obtained a Distinction. His areas of expertise include the UK-EU relationship, British political parties, and Euroscepticism in the UK. His research focuses on Brexit and Parliament. Stephen Booth is Acting Director at Open Europe and heads its policy and research team. While at Open Europe he has written on EU regulation, justice and home affairs and EU aid policy.