If he wins a majority, Boris Johnson would be well-placed to play hardball with the EU in negotiating the future relationship

If he wins a majority, Boris Johnson would be well-placed to play hardball with the EU in negotiating the future relationship

Does Boris Johnson’s deal Take Back Control of our borders, our laws, our trade and our money? Yes, on balance it does, despite the doubts. After the transition period we leave the Single Market and Customs Union, can cut tariffs, negotiate trade deals and change our own rules, regulations and taxes. We will have our own immigration policy. Our EU contributions stop after the exit fee and the transition period.

The deal also changes the whole basis for negotiating the long term UK-EU agreement. We will be free to walk out without a deal if they demand too much. Under the May deal, we would have had to agree to anything the EU demanded, to get out of the Customs Union. Provisions which could subordinate much of our business rules and our defence and security policies to the EU have been moved out of the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) to the Political Declaration (PD), where they are non-binding. They are expressed in more open language, no longer assuming alignment with EU rules.

However the deal still leaves the EU with some highly undesirable levers over us.

  • During the Transition Period we will have to obey any new EU rules they introduce, and these could be punitive, though of course we can make them short-term.
  • A lot of the “level playing field” requirements (on aligning with EU rules) are still in the PD, along with potential military and security commitments. So they are part of the basis for negotiating the Free Trade Agreement (FTA). The EU will push hard to get us to align with EU rules and structures as much as they can as a trade-off for access. We will need to be strong and if necessary ready to walk away from the FTA talks.
  • Apart from the backstop and the level playing field requirements, the rest of Theresa May’s 585-page Withdrawal Agreement is intact. Detailed commitments tie us into elements of the EU. In particular, the European Court of Justice retains jurisdiction over interpreting EU law in deciding disputes on the WA.
  • Northern Ireland has been abandoned to EU control in the Single Market, subject to majority assent after four years. The Good Friday Agreement insistence on consent by both communities has been excluded from the deal.

Sadly, Nigel Farage has adopted a position of total opposition to Boris Johnson’s deal, describing it as betrayal and 95% the same as May’s deal. This denies Boris’s significant achievement in transforming the entire basis of the May deal and getting it agreed, against all the odds, with the EU. Farage’s criticisms assume total capitulation during future FTA negotiations – full acceptance of everything in the non-binding Political Declaration. A Tory government with any resolution – and Boris has displayed considerable resolution – will reject any extreme EU demands. Having won the right to set our own rules and trade policies, Boris would be mad to let the EU in again by the back Delors, as Lady Thatcher put it.

The uber-hardline Farage has adopted probably rules out an electoral pact with the Tories, putting Brexit itself at risk. Had he acknowledged how much Boris has gained, the Brexit Party could have acted as an effective pressure group, helping to push the Tories towards a robust approach to the next stage of EU negotiations, and bringing over some of the European Research Group to his point of view. As it is, his outright opposition to a supposed Great Betrayal will confuse voters and blunt the Tory campaign. Are we really leaving or not? Can we trust Boris? It could even result in a hung Parliament, and frustrate Brexit – the last thing either party wants. Is it too late for him to change tack?

We can afford to take a robust line with the EU. If we don’t, they will use the end of the transition period as another deadline to pressure us with. We could turn this pressure back upon them, because we need not fear No Deal. It would be much better for Britain than the current deal, if we could get there. Preparations are well-advanced on both sides, and any short-term disruption is far preferable to long-term constraints on our independence. International law makes it difficult to end a treaty obligation with no exit clause.

WTO terms would not be a problem – we trade with most of the world on WTO terms. The Government has said that it will use some of the savings on EU contributions to subsidise hard-hit business sectors. We could eliminate the high EU tariffs on items such as food, clothing and footwear, cutting our cost of living.

In the long term, of course, an FTA with the EU would be beneficial to both sides. But we need not rush into one. First we need to convince them that we are not to be pushed around, or that’s exactly what they will do.

Having put Michel Barnier and the anti-Brexit Irish Commissioner Phil Hogan in charge of FTA negotiations, the EU clearly expect they will continue to steamroller us. They will almost certainly follow the negotiating strategy they used so successfully with Theresa May. Demand from the start, in a “negotiating mandate”, the maximum alignment with EU rules allowed for in the PD, and full incorporation into EU defence and security structures. Then sit tight and watch the UK “make progress” towards what they want, with the clock ticking. Make no concessions. They will also aim to string out the talks beyond the transition period, so that they can demand a huge budget contribution for extending it.

Boris is made of sterner stuff, and if he can get a majority at this general election he will be in a much stronger position to stand up to them. The election will have removed many of the EU’s friends and allies from the Commons, and the Opposition parties will no longer be able to hold him to ransom. He should make sure that those of his MPs who get both selected and elected will be more strongly Brexit-orientated.

Having fought so hard to get us out, in the face of a determined and hostile Parliament, Boris is now well placed to win the election. He has clearly painted the outgoing Parliament as the face of Remain, and made most of the country fed up with their antics. Labour is still dithering.

If he wins, Boris should reject the EU’s inevitable FTA demands as unreasonable. He should go further, and put the whole negotiation on ice until they show that are ready to agree to negotiations without preconditions. The country would be delighted to hear no more of Brexit for a year or more. The last thing we want now is more years of grinding Brexit negotiations. Boris would be clearly seen to have “Got Brexit Done”.

He might go even further, and reopen some of the more contentious elements of his deal, starting with the transition period and the remains of ECJ jurisdiction. He could put off parliamentary approval of the WA until preliminary FTA talks have indicated how the land lies. After all, it will cost us £39bn. What will we get for it? The EU would be outraged, but the threat of No Deal should hold no terrors for us.

We don’t need a transition period under EU rule and at our expense. To restart the talks, Boris could insist that, instead of the transition period, both sides notify the WTO that we are negotiating a Free Trade Agreement. That would let us restart our tariff-free trade until a deal is agreed, providing a much easier transition and a much better alternative for cross-Ireland trade. The EU needs to preserve its £95bn trade surplus with the UK. That should concentrate minds after a while.

The above approach would be tough going. Our “friends and partners” would be furious, and relationships would be strained for a while. A period on WTO terms would be inevitable. But if we don’t show our strength, can we rely on them to negotiate fairly? They have seen bullying produce a pre-emptive cringe and an almost unbelievably one-sided deal from Theresa May. They can see Boris is much tougher, but old habits die hard.

And having left the EU, would we really want them to retain any elements of control over us? Wouldn’t it be better to co-operate, as we do with other countries? Now that would be a real Brexit.