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Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Outlawing more Brexit delay is bold, but Boris Johnson must beware the EU’s trade talks trap

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Boris Johnson as Michel Barnier looks on
Boris Johnson as Michel Barnier looks on CREDIT: THIERRY MONASSE /GETTY IMAGES EUROPE 

Following my decision to stand down 317 Brexit Party candidates during the general election campaign, the question I am asked most often by ardent Leavers is: do I really trust Boris Johnson to achieve Brexit? Given the failure of the Conservatives to secure Britain’s exit from the EU over the last 30 months, this is a fair question.

I have been opposed to Johnson’s “deal” from the start. As soon as it surfaced, in October, I went through it in detail in the early hours of the morning in Brussels. It was easy to see that what he had agreed was a new EU treaty with an attached political declaration that was not so very different from Theresa May’s botched compromise. My sense was that it would have disastrous consequences for the Union.

The reason that I backed down in those 317 seats was that Johnson promised subsequently that the UK really would leave the bloc by the end of 2020 and would also aim to negotiate a super Canada-plus free trade agreement without political and regulatory alignment. Be in no doubt that without these pledges, the Brexit Party would have stood against the Conservatives in those 317 constituencies.

Since Johnson’s victory on Thursday it has been widely speculated that the ERG and, indeed, the Brexit Party would likely be let down by the prime minister. It was assumed that with an 80-seat majority both entities had effectively been neutered.

In political terms, I am pleased to say, this view has already been proved wrong. The bold announcement on Monday night that the withdrawal bill will be brought before the House of Commons with an amendment making it illegal for parliament to extend the transition period beyond December 2020 is fantastic. 

Better still is that a WTO withdrawal is back on the table if the terms of the trade agreement cannot be sorted out. Johnson seems to be sincere that our break from the European Union should be a clean one. These amendments to the withdrawal bill are without doubt the best news that Brexiteers have heard from the government since 23 June 2016. The most pressing question that remains is what will all of this mean in legal terms in our negotiations with Brussels?

I still see a huge potential conflict between clear political statements made on this side of the Channel and the wording of the documents agreed with Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator. Some people have tried to reassure me by claiming that the language of the political declaration doesn’t matter very much because it is not legally binding. These things, say these optimists, can be negotiated once the deal has passed. I beg to differ.

Barnier has laid a very clever trap for us. If this deal is passed then he, together with strong support from the new EU Commission, the European Parliament and EU governments, will be able to point to Article 184 of the new EU treaty. It requires the EU and the UK to use their “best endeavours, in good faith” to negotiate the agreements governing the future relationship “expeditiously”, with a view to ensuring that they apply from the end of the implementation period.

I know Barnier. He will not give an inch, believing that the British government would never carry out its pledge to leave on WTO terms at the end of next December. From the start, Barnier’s aim has been to make sure that Brexit Britain cannot gain any competitive advantage over EU member states. In this endeavour, he has the support of Angela Merkel, among others. 

As a result, it is apparent that a tangible tension exists between Johnson’s stated aim of a Canada-style deal and the wording of his own withdrawal agreement. For this reason, I believe that some amendments to the wording of the political declaration would be very helpful, putting Barnier on notice that the UK cannot accept full alignment with EU laws. This matters because any extension of the implementation period must be submitted to Brussels by July 1, 2020. There is only a little time for us to agree a draft trade agreement. 

Britain must get off on the right foot with Brussels. Failure to do so will haul the country back into crisis in June, when parliament and the government will be deciding whether to give notice to leave the EU on WTO terms or whether to extend the implementation period. As we all know, our nation has been through these agonies before. I think being totally frank with Brussels now is the best – indeed, the only – way forward.

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