Rare win for Boris Johnson — but Brexit storm hasn't passed

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LONDON — In a bleak year, Boris Johnson finally got his moment of triumph. How long it lasts is another question.

The U.K. prime minister portrayed the Christmas Eve free-trade and cooperation deal struck between the EU and the U.K. not only as an economic and social good, but a moment of political catharsis for the country.

“We have also today resolved a question that has bedeviled our politics for decades and it is up to us all together as a newly and truly independent nation to realize the immensity of this moment and to make the most of it,” Johnson said at a Downing Street press conference shortly after the deal was struck.

Domestically, it is no doubt a political victory. At the end of a year in which the prime minister has sustained heavy criticism for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and has repeatedly failed to live up to promises, Thursday marked a rare win.

Internationally, the agreement avoids an acrimonious end to the Brexit transition period that might have soured relations not only with Europe, but with an incoming Joe Biden administration in the U.S. that would have looked dimly on a no-deal breakdown in trust between London and the capitals of the EU. Despite plenty of bad blood on the route to the deal, both sides welcomed the agreement with warm rhetoric.

Whether it truly ends the “European question” in British politics — as former Prime Minister David Cameron had hoped to do and Johnson claimed his deal will do — is far more doubtful. And it also raises fundamental new issues, not least about the future of the U.K. itself, that could yet come to define Johnson’s premiership far more than 2020’s 11th hour deal-making.

Brexit done

In the very short term, however, it looks like plain sailing for Johnson. The deal, which will be subject to a ratification vote in the U.K. parliament on December 30, is highly likely to pass.

Some Conservative MPs, who have said they will study the deal in depth over the coming days, may quibble over details, but the overall shape of the agreement is — and has been for some time — one that represents a fundamental victory for Brexiteers. The U.K. will leave the EU’s single market and customs union. It will continue to manage its economy under rules similar to those in the EU, but if it wants to change those rules in the future, it has the freedom to (with consequences in the shape of tariffs).

Even on the totemic issue of fisheries, where the U.K. gave ground in the latter stages of the talks, none but the most purist Brexiteer could claim that the final settlement (a five-and-a-half-year transition period to a situation where the U.K. is free to decide who accesses its fishing waters) is not a major change from the status quo.

The kind of “betrayal” narratives that dogged Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May show no sign of taking off; Johnson, the Vote Leave figurehead, has kept the faithful onside. Even arch-Euroskeptic Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit Party called the deal a “big moment” and a “victory” — if not a perfect one.

Meanwhile the opposition Labour Party made a strategic decision earlier this year to put the Brexit question behind it. It once backed a second referendum, but after losing swaths of its Brexit-backing supporters, now it just wants to see Brexit done in smoothest way possible — and its leader Keir Starmer said Thursday his party would back the deal. Starmer called it “a thin agreement” that did not provide adequate protections for British businesses or financial services, but concluded: “Up against no deal, we accept this deal.”

Brexiteer voters will welcome the deal-making success of the prime minister they emphatically backed at December’s general election with his pledge “to get Brexit done;” Remainers will be relieved there was a deal at all.

Relief (and jitters)

Relief among British businesses may be more short-lived.

Johnson’s claim during his announcement that there will be “no non-tariff barriers” to trade is not correct. The deal removes tariffs and quotas. It doesn’t remove mountains of new paperwork for firms looking to trade with the EU, as the government’s own copious sets of instructions for businesses testifies.

This week’s two-day French ban on accompanied freight crossing the Channel (ordered because of fears over a new strain of coronavirus that has emerged in the U.K.) led to thousands of lorries being held up in Kent — and may have been a taste of what is to come. How well ports cope in the first few days and weeks after the deal kicks in on January 1 will be a major factor that determines how long Johnson’s post-deal honeymoon period lasts, especially for a prime minister dogged throughout the pandemic by accusations of chaos.

“Coming so late in the day it is vital that both sides take instant steps to keep trade moving and services flowing while firms adjust,” said Tony Danker, director general of the British business lobby group the Confederation of British Industry, which called for “grace periods” on many aspects of the deal.

A No. 10 spokesperson conceded there are “challenges and bumps” coming down the track.

“For over a year we have been making extensive preparations and invested £4 billion for the end of the transition period,” the spokesperson said. “As with any major change there will be challenges and bumps to overcome. But we have laid the groundwork to minimize the disruption.”

On the international stage too, relief isn’t certain to last. Those in Europe and the U.S. who had worried that Brexit would rupture the European pillar of the Western alliance will be reassured by Johnson’s words on the future of U.K-EU relations.

“I think this deal means a new stability and a new certainty in what has sometimes been a fractious and difficult relationship,” Johnson said. “We will be your friend, your ally, your supporter and indeed — never let it be forgotten — your No. 1 market. Because although we have left the EU, this country will remain culturally, emotionally, historically, strategically and geologically attached to Europe.”

David Lidington, Theresa May’s one-time deputy, who had previously warned of the dangers of a no-deal poisoning the well of relations for years, said he was relieved by what he had heard. The deal, he said, would allow for an “amicable divorce and the creation in the months and years ahead of a new, different and close strategic partnership.”

But after more than four years of hostile rhetoric, compounded by the U.K.’s threat earlier this year to break international law, a warm embrace from the Continent is by no means guaranteed.

Brexit not-so-done

However welcome the victory, Johnson won’t be able to escape the Brexit dynamic.

For a start, trade spats are likely to continue — there are even mechanisms to manage accusations of one side undercutting the other that come with options to impose tariffs. Many sectors are still waiting for details to be resolved that cover their business, and some areas of the talks, like fish, will be reopened for another negotiation at a later date.

Though a Downing Street official described the U.K. as moving out of the “lunar pull” of the EU, London will be faced with frequent mini-Brexit decisions over the coming years about whether to move with its giant economic neighbor on new regulations or to diverge and face the consequences — in the form or targeted sanctions, including tariffs.

A Downing Street spokesperson confirmed that a “formal review of the arrangements” could also take place after four years; another moment at which the “European question” is bound to rear its head in U.K. politics again.

As early as next May, when Remain-supporting Scotland goes to the polls to choose its next devolved parliament, Brexit will again tug at the seams of the U.K.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon — expected to win a majority at that election — opposes any form of Brexit but particularly the kind Johnson has delivered.

“Before the spin starts,” she tweeted as the deal was announced,“it’s worth remembering that Brexit is happening against Scotland’s will. And there is no deal that will ever make up for what Brexit takes away from us. It’s time for us to chart our own future as an independent, European nation.”

A convincing victory in May would give new impetus to Sturgeon’s campaign for independence, which had seemed dead for a generation after a first referendum in 2014. Johnson has set his face against granting Scotland another independence vote. That may become a harder stance to maintain as the impact of Brexit makes itself felt.

The political process of Brexit is over (and Johnson will rejoice). But the lived reality of Brexit is only just beginning.

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