Patience and divisions in the EU, Johnson’s path to the Brexit agreement


LONDON. “The UK finally said goodbye, but we have absolutely no idea how to keep in touch with the EU.” The statement by a British diplomat underlines when little the country is aware of the leap in the dark that it has done by ending its 47 years of relations with the European Union. It took three years to complete the divorce, but Boris Johnson gave negotiators just 11 months to forge a lasting relationship with Europe.

There have already been uneven attitudes in the government that questions whether the economic model should differ from the European one or not. In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid pointed to the differences by advocating “minimal alignment” with European standards. Speaking in Davos a week later, he stated that there will be no difference just in the taste of imposing them. The episode highlights that the government has not yet found a compromise between its visions and that therefore there may be a reshuffle in the executive to face the second phase of Brexit.

Johnson has a large majority in the municipalities, but also has a number of constraints. His new group of deputies from the now “Blue Wall” regions (color of conservatives, ed) of Northern England, may face voter fears if trade barriers are raised in 2021. Then there is the case of Northern Ireland where the Stormont assembly, suspended for three years, returns to meet . But the more obstacles are created between London and Brussels, the more onerous border controls will be on goods in transit from England to Northern Ireland. And the more Northern Irish feel damaged by Brexit, the stronger the demand for Scottish independence will become. The world of commerce, agriculture and manufacturing will complain as soon as they realize that the European market on which they have sold their goods so far, will disappear behind a blanket of duties. At that point they will perceive Brexit as an ad hoc project for Southern England.

That’s why before the dialogue with the EU gets to life in late spring, Johnson will have to be good at postponing difficult choices. An attitude, however, which sooner or later will have to renounce and recognize that trade without tensions and constraints, and total political sovereignty are incompatible.

Downing Street is convinced that its diplomatic skills will produce a compromise with the EU. It starts from the assumption that Brussels will not want a “beast” that moves undisturbed in a jungle without rules on the doorstep. And London will want to test, in this 2021, the unity shown by the EU in the first phase of the negotiations. The United Kingdom is convinced that Germany and France, in need of British defense assets, want to cooperate with London. On foreign policy, the EU-3 format (the one applied in Libya and Iran) makes the United Kingdom a necessary partner for Europe.

British government officials admitted that the UK was wrong to believe that the EU’s compactness would melt away in the divorce negotiations. However now that the issues at stake are different and more sensitive, the national capitals – it is opinion in London – will be more determined to defend their interests. The tug of war between the Visegrad Group and France on the lines and figures of the European budget is an example.

The Foreign Office believes that France will cooperate on the security issue. Neither Paris nor London want to see the understanding launched at Lancaster House in 2010 vanish. And at the same time if the new Commission wants to reach a geo-strategic dimension, a foreign policy without reference to the United Kingdom is madness.

Yet, exhausted by the long road to Brexit, Britain, as Eurosceptic MEP Iain Duncan Smith admits, knows that the hardest part is ahead.

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