Making Brexit banal

31.01.20 Publication:

The true significance of Brexit day is that it is not significant at all – it may be sad or happy,
depending on your point of view, but as a moment it has little importance. And that may be
why the Johnson government is making fairly little of it, for its interests have shifted since
December 12 th . Forget Project Fear, Project Betrayal or even Get Brexit Done. The most
logical slogan now would be Make Brexit Banal.

The only thing that changes after January 31 st is that Britain no longer has a formal
voice in European Union institutions. The trade and other negotiations due to get under way
in March will determine what else will change, on or after December 31 st 2020. But the irony
is that despite all his pro-Brexit bluster over the past three years it is now in Boris Johnson’s
interest to make it appear as if very little will change then, either.

Some of his decisions since arriving in Number Ten last July, and even since his
electoral triumph in December, seem to reflect this. On foreign and security matters, he has
stayed close to the European line rather than aligning with Donald Trump: on Iran, for
example, even after the assassination of Qassem Suleimani on January 3 rd ; most recently on
the use of Huawei equipment in 5G telecoms networks. His claims that goods passing
between Northern Ireland and Great Britain will require no border checks, despite his own
Withdrawal Agreement saying that they will, also fits this: he prefers to argue that Brexit
will make no real difference, which could mean that in negotiations over future trade
between the EU and Britain he will try to make sure that it doesn’t.

Perhaps that is to take the prime minister too literally. There will be plenty of
pressure, whether from specific companies lobbying for easier rules, from Brexit
fundamentalists in his own party or from nationalist editors at the Daily Mail, the Express,
the Telegraph and the Sun, to ensure that Britain takes a tough negotiating stance to defend
its right to diverge from EU rules, so as to make 2020 the last year during which the UK is a
“vassal state”, as Mr Johnson, echoing Jacob Rees-Mogg, once called it.

Governments elsewhere in Europe, along with the EU negotiating team led by
Michel Barnier, are girding themselves for a confrontation over precisely this. But it is
reasonable to doubt whether, in the end, the confrontation will amount to more than a
brief period of posturing. Talk of another “cliff edge”, of using the threat that Britain will
walk away next December and join Afghanistan in just “trading on WTO terms”, may well be
just talk. In fact, we might find such talk being suppressed quite quickly.

The reason is that the government, and Mr Johnson in particular, no longer needs to
win the argument about whether or not Brexit is a good idea. It wants to win re-election in
2023 or 2024 by being able to boast that a strong economy has brought jobs and rising living
standards to all regions of the country. To achieve that, the last thing it needs is to see
continued uncertainty holding back business investment, which is just what will happen
during confrontational negotiations.

A better approach will actually be to avoid there being one big, make or break,
negotiation at all. The EU anyway says it would be impossible to achieve such a negotiation
in such a short period, and it is surely right. Far better to slice the issues up into several
different negotiations, making an agreement on some headline issues but most importantly                                              agreeing upon a way to proceed while all the detailed, sectoral negotiations take place over
many years to come. One way this could be done is to exploit Article 24 of the General
Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which allows countries to agree to trade with each other
on a preferential (probably zero tariff) basis as long as they are meanwhile moving towards
a full free trade agreement with one another.

This was often brought up during debate about the option of a ‘no deal’ Brexit, but
since it requires agreement by both sides it wasn’t actually apposite. Now it is apposite and
it carries an extra advantage for Mr Johnson: it would allow him to extend the ‘transition
period’ during which Britain remains subject to the rules of the EU single market without
officially doing so, thus avoiding him breaking his previous pledge.

By stringing things out, the Article 24 approach would, if the EU agrees to it, allow
the whole Brexit process to be re-labelled as merely something technical, something various
clever boffins in different ministries are dealing with while the government gets on with its
real agenda: spending money on health and infrastructure, cutting taxes, rebuilding the
military, or whatever else its priorities turn out to be.

The last thing Boris Johnson wants anyone to be asking, in 2023 or 2024, is “was
Brexit a good idea or not?” He’d rather you’d got bored and moved on. He’d rather you pay
attention to all the things his government will have done by then that they could have done
anyway, regardless of Brexit. He allegedly sent out an instruction after the election victory
saying that Brexit was not to be mentioned again inside government, and it is now being
claimed that ministries are being told not to explain publicly what this year’s ‘transition
period’ involves. Make Brexit Banal: that’s the new agenda.

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay