The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

03 Feb 2020

Politics and Society

Anand Menon

The election is over. The next campaign has begun. This wasn’t really a speech about Brexit at all. It was a rallying cry, rolling the pitch for the blame game to come.

Trade negotiations are not about doing what your interlocutor might consider reasonable. They are about securing what you want. And whether Mr Johnson thinks the EU is being fair or not is neither here not there.

What is more, and yet again, perhaps the most interesting questions around Brexit remain stubbornly unposed let alone unanswered.

If we are assuming a thin deal at best, how will this impact on ambitious domestic investment plans? Is the Conservative majority sufficient to cushion them against the impact of a dramatic shift in the terms of trade with the EU in January 2021?

And what of the promised benefits of Brexit? Will we flourish despite it, or because of it? It’s hard to avoid the impression that the Prime Minister is shifting towards the former.

Jonathan Portes

The Prime Minister’s speech aimed to position the UK as the champion of global free trade. But the reality is that – as he also accepted – Brexit is first and foremost about reimposing trade barriers between the UK and the EU.

And with both sides setting out hardline negotiating positions, not just on “level playing field” issues but also other topics such as fisheries, the likelihood is that those new barriers will be substantial.

Meanwhile, both the government’s commitments on issues like food standards and political constraints mean any trade deal with the US is likely to be very limited indeed.

So while the signs are that our exports of lofty rhetoric will indeed soar even further, the economic reality is likely to be that the UK becomes less, not more, open to trade over the next few years. “

Tim Bale

No-one was expecting Boris Johnson to produce a detailed blueprint. But few observers would see this as a serious speech for serious times. There were an awful lot of soundbites but precious little substance – a lot of rhetoric, some would say, but not a whole lot of realism.

Hopefully there’s some rather more profound thinking going on in government behind the scenes – not just on trade but on borders, too. And hopefully business is going to be properly consulted, as well. If not, we’re heading for quite a crunch later on this year.

Jill Rutter

The EU draft mandate unveiled by Michel Barnier contained few surprises – clear linkage of trade to resolution on fisheries and “level playing field standards”.

But, except for state aid, it does not appear to insist on automatic “dynamic alignment” – so there may be space for an agreement if the government is prepared to put Johnson’s assurances on maintaining standards into legal text.

What becomes clear from this mandate is that the sort of very bespoke deal with the UK that Theresa May initially sought is not on the table – from the Commission at least. We wait to see whether member states ask for any changes when they approve the text in February.

In a repeat of the theatrics of phase one, the UK PM has chosen a speech in a historic setting to lay down red lines, embellished with rhetorical flourishes, while the EU has laid out 167 paragraphs of negotiating demands in a functional conference room in Brussels.

We have to hope that, behind the Johnson oratory, UK ministers have agreed their own parallel version of the EU text.


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