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Boris Johnson’s Victory Is Exactly What the EU Wants
The endless Brexit saga has brought uncertainty, instability, and confusion to Brussels. Now European leaders can get on with business.
Following Boris Johnson’s decisive victory in the British general election on Thursday, he has an unlikely group of new supporters. European Union leaders in Brussels have taken up Johnson’s slogan: “Get Brexit Done.” The last two years of political paralysis in the United Kingdom have been a kind of purgatory for an EU that would rather think about its own future. Now, at last, it should be able to get on with business.
While the Conservative vote increased slightly, Johnson’s victory was due almost entirely to a huge drop in the Labour vote, handing Tories dozens of seats that last voted Conservative following Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1987.
In England and Wales, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s earnest, back-to-the-future socialism (he promised free government broadband to every home) failed to win voters over to his cause. His waffling and incoherence on Brexit—Labour’s policy was to negotiate a “better” deal and hold a referendum on that deal, in which the party would campaign against its own deal but its leader would stay neutral—pushed some pro-Brexit voters toward the decidedly unambiguous Brexit Party.
The stench of anti-Semitism (the party is being investigated by Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission) further depressed Labour’s support. All the Tories needed to do was to get their existing vote out. The result was just 300,000 more votes for Johnson than for Theresa May in 2017, but Corbyn’s Labour lost 2.6 million votes.
The result is a Conservative administration with the parliamentary support needed to bring the Brexit process to a conclusion. Ratification of the withdrawal agreement, impossible in the previous Parliament, will be brought forward next week. Implementing legislation for Brexit is scheduled for January and February. Once the Brexit debate is over once and for all, efforts will then turn to the post-Brexit free trade agreement that will be negotiated between the EU and U.K.; with Britain no longer a member of the EU, this agreement will determine the future of its economic relations with the bloc. And this is where Johnson’s large majority will come in handy.
Once the withdrawal agreement is ratified, Northern Ireland will, for most practical purposes, find itself inside the EU’s sphere of influence. And Thursday, for the first time since Irish independence in 1921, nine of Northern Ireland’s representatives elected to Westminster are from nationalist parties (that is, they support unification with the Republic of Ireland—many of them to the point of not taking their seats in a U.K. Parliament whose authority they refuse to recognize), while only eight are from unionist parties (that is, they support the current union with Great Britain). With such numbers, being in the EU customs territory is probably something today’s Northern Ireland can live with.
This leaves Boris Johnson negotiating trading arrangements for England, Scotland, and Wales. He prefers a bare-bones agreement that eliminates tariffs on goods but takes the rest of the U.K. out of the EU’s customs union, makes little or no provision for trade in services, and leaves the U.K. with maximum freedom to make trade deals with other countries, including the United States—an enticing proposition given U.S. President Donald Trump’s promise to sign a “massive” and “lucrative” deal.
The EU, however, has made it clear it will impose what it calls “level playing field” conditions on any such agreement. It’s afraid that the U.K. is so close that it could outcompete the EU by subsidizing its industries, deregulating its labor markets, and abandoning policies to fight climate change. Brussels will therefore make continued U.K. alignment with EU policies in these areas a condition of even the relatively basic trade agreement that Johnson wants.
When the time required to negotiate the trade agreement elapses, they will say, as they did with the withdrawal agreement itself: “our deal or no deal.” This time, however, the EU will be in an even stronger negotiating position. Before the withdrawal agreement was negotiated, the EU needed to protect the interests of the Republic of Ireland and prevent a hard border on the island. These interests have now been secured by the revised withdrawal agreement. There will, however, still be another cliff edge—the only question is when.
The transition period in which the U.K. remains bound by all EU laws ends in one year’s time, but the withdrawal agreement allows a decision to be made by July 2020 to extend it until the end of 2022. Johnson insists he won’t seek such an extension and even put that pledge in his party’s election manifesto. If he sticks to his promise he’ll be faced with the cliff edge this coming summer (and if he doesn’t he’ll have the same problem two years later).
Here is where his majority comes in. Although the more hard-line Euroskeptics in the Conservative Party (who like to call themselves “Spartans,” but are known to the rest of the world in more banal terms as the European Research Group) will oppose the level playing field provisions the EU will insist on, there aren’t enough of them to trouble Johnson’s majority of roughly 80 seats; just as there aren’t enough moderate MPs to oppose leaving the EU with no free trade deal if he chooses that instead.
In either case, the Brexit fallout will have been contained to the island of Great Britain. Though the Scottish Nationalists’ impressive result (they won 48 of 59 Scottish seats on Dec. 12) will lead to demands for a second independence referendum, raising the possibility that an independent Scotland might one day choose to rejoin the EU, this will for the moment remain a constitutional crisis for London and Edinburgh to resolve.
Brussels can at last contain Brexit and get on with its budget negotiations, eurozone reform, rule of law crisis, and emerging defense policy without worrying about bickering and indecisive Brits destabilizing their union.