A New Deal and a UK Election: Towards a Brexit in 2020?

, by Timothée Houzel

A New Deal and a UK Election: Towards a Brexit in 2020?
The UK will elect 650 MPs on December 12th. The British Parliament and Big Ben - Image credits Maurice (https://www.flickr.com/people/97044050@N00)

Timothée Houzel interviews Dr. Russell Foster, Lecturer in British and European Politics at King’s College London.

What are the main features of the new agreement signed between the United Kingdom and the European Union (EU) on October 17? How is it different to the one Theresa May negotiated?

It must be admitted that the deal approved in October is almost identical to Theresa May’s agreement, although the main difference is the removal of the Irish backstop.

What is striking is that the Irish border was never considered an issue during the referendum campaign. But this has been an important issue since the negotiations started in 2017 as Brexit implies the re-establishment of a border between the United Kingdom (UK) and the European Union (EU), and it appeared that this border would unfortunately have to divide Ireland. This would have resulted in the fragile 1998 Friday agreement being called into question and possibly violence reappearing on the Irish island.

After more than 2 years and a half negotiation, and after the controversy over the backstop, the “new” deal would mean Northern Ireland would continue to apply part of the European regulations, thus avoiding the re-establishment of a physical border. Thus, goods produced in Northern Ireland will be able to enter the EU without border controls, and products from the rest of the UK or from third countries destined for sale in the Single Market will be checked at points of entry in Northern Ireland.

But the European Research Group (ERG) and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) have heavily criticised the mechanism, seeing it as fragmentation of the United Kingdom and as an attempt by the EU to make the UK a vassal state. Indeed, in order not to have to establish a border between the two parts of the island of Ireland, the mechanism amounts to moving this border between Ireland and the UK.

After the years of deadlock and with new parliamentary elections coming up on 12 December, how high are the stakes in this election and what are the chances of a majority in favour of the new agreement emerging?

The main issue at stake in these elections is the Brexit fatigue after more than 3 years of vigorous debate and political instability. If Brexit divides the British among themselves, their willingness to end Brexit remains their lowest common denominator and these elections thus aim to end this deadlock and get Brexit resolved.

But this makes the results of these elections hard to predict for a number of reasons.

First of all, nobody anticipated the 2016 referendum result and the outcome of the 2017 Parliamentary Elections was itself unexpected, leading to a hung parliament, which calls for a cautious comment on these elections.

Secondly, political parties do not seem to be replaying the 2016 campaign. The Conservatives are looking for a majority that can ratify the agreement and “get Brexit done”, the Liberal Democrats want to revoke the agreement and the Labour party’s position is still confused.

It seems that, judging to the latest polls, the Conservative will win a majority, due to both Johnson’s willingness to end the Brexit, but also because of the weaknesses of the Labour party. Labour’s anti-Semitism scandal and the lack of popularity of Corbyn are one thing, but the lack of a clear position on the Brexit is much more damaging, since Labour wants to renegotiate Johnson’s deal without further clarification, and put it to a new referendum.

Finally, after Johnson’s refusal to form a coalition with the Brexit party, and Farage’s announcement that he is not standing for election, it is more likely that the Brexit party will be a second tier actor in these elections, rather than weakening the majority by splitting the Leave votes. Moreover, Farage is increasingly disliked for its opposition to any agreement with the EU.

Thirdly, given the Liberal Democrats’ limited room for manoeuvre and the Brexit Party’s low credibility, these elections could mean a return to normalcy in British political life, with a two-party system between the Tories and the Labour party.

If so, what would be the next steps and challenges for the implementation of this agreement?

If the Conservative win a small majority, they would have enough MPs to ratify the deal, paving the way for a real UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

But Brexit is much more a constitutional affair. These last 3 years, it has become an issue which divided the British on the question of British identity.

The research I am undertaking at King’s College shows that Brexit has saturated British life and conscientiousness, thus becoming omnipresent in British society and culture. For instance, the very idea of minting certain British coins to celebrate the UK’s departure from the European Union concept is striking, whereas money is usually intended to represent glorified and relatively consensual history.

Let’s assume the UK leaves the EU in January,

Brexit will remain in the minds of a divided British society where a certain sacralization leads to the opposition of two hermetic camps that are opposed by everything and that no longer want to listen to each other. As such, the latest conclusion from a YouGov survey for the People’s Vote Campaign are astonishing and show how poisonous Brexit had become.

In reality, the June 2016 referendum was not a vote on EU membership linked to European issues, but rather a vote against the status quo within the UK embodied by the dominance of London, the political caste that David Cameron represented and the never-ending austerity. This vote was a cry for help from communities that feel at best neglected, at worst abandoned.

Such a situation will obviously not be resolved once Brexit has been approved, ratified and initiated. Brexit underlines a general distrust within British society, illustrated by the large number of MPs who do not wish to stand for re-election in December.

In the event of Brexit, a transitional period would begin during which London and Brussels would negotiate the outlines of their future relationship what are the stakes of these negotiations?

I am afraid that the British would then consider Brexit to be complete and have little interest in this two-year period, which will be mainly devoted to administrative matters.

But it is not just that; from the EU’s perspective, the UK is the second biggest European economy, an important market in the internal market, and a country that could still be the link between the European world and the Anglo-Saxon world.

The British are obsessed with Brexit, but forget to consider the other challenges the EU currently face: the question of relations with Turkey, which threatens to bring millions of refugees into European territory, discussions with North Macedonia and Albania, the Russian threat or the recession threatening Germany which could be more widespread and see Euroscepticism increase.

In this more global context going beyond the Brexit question alone, and while the next European Commission shows that decisions are still taken behind closed doors, the very first challenge for the European institutions is to gain democratic legitimacy.

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