January 07, 2020
Europe's fast disappearance from the UK debate
It was understandable for the UK political scene to go on an extended holiday after last year’s political marathon. What we find interesting is the sheer extent to which Europe has turned from a singular obsession into a non-issue overnight. Some of the most prominent Remain campaigners in the Labour Party now say that the battle is lost, and that it is time to move on. Sir Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary and one of the leading candidates for the Labour leadership, did not mention Europe once in his slick campaign video. Instead he focused mostly on his record as a human-rights lawyer and on inequality. Among the candidates only Jess Phillips, a backbench MP from Birmingham, said she would campaign to take the UK back into the EU. But this was in response to a question. And she clearly hadn't though this through. The disappearance of the EU as a political theme is consistent with our previous observation that much of the Remain/Leave debate was a proxy battle for other political conflicts: between the interests of urban and rural Britain, the north vs the south, new elites versus old.
The debate about the UK’s relationship with the EU will, of course, return as a substantive issue. Brexit will happen by the end of the month, but the future relationship has yet to be mapped out. Tomorrow, Boris Johnson will meet with Ursula von der Leyen to discuss the scope and timetable for negotiations. Trade is only one of several points, and possibly not even the most important one given the most recent political events in the Middle East. The future relationship will clearly be among our foreseeable themes this year.
The expectations among journalists in the UK is that Johnson will invariably extend the transition period deadline of end-December. With a comfortable Commons majority, Johnson can do what he likes. Several events over the last few weeks have made us more cautious about a delay, though.
The fixed-term parliament act will go, which means that the length of parliamentary terms will revert into a range of four to five years. On the basis of a four-year term, we would assume that Johnson would want to leave the transitional period well before the next election. But even a short extension would not buy enough time for a deep trade agreement, the kind that includes investment and requires ratification by member states and some regional assemblies. A minimal EU-level deal, by contrast, focusing on trade tariffs and rules of origin, can be done quickly.
This leads us to think that Johnson may be favouring a narrow deal first, with additional bits added later and maybe some additional transitional arrangements for areas in which discussions will continue. So this may be not be such a black-and-white issue as it sometimes appears. Also consider that the EU cannot credibly take the negotiations to the brink, given its own commercial interests and the lack of a pro-Remain majority in the UK parliament this time around. The discussions will be much more symmetric in the sense that both sides would gain from an agreement, and would lose from a failure.