It is March 29, 2019, and the House of Commons of the British Parliament votes for the third time on the negotiated and renegotiated divorce agreement between Theresa May and the EU, namely, Brexit. Europe has been the Conservative leader’s headache since she took the keys to 10 Downing Street three years ago, after the European referendum and the subsequent resignation of former Prime Minister David Cameron.
May has devoted all her efforts to solving the complicated European problem, an issue that has divided the Tories for decades and even caused Margaret Thatcher’s fall. However, her efforts have been in vain. In the name of resolving the European Gordian knot, May lost her party’s parliamentary majority in 2017 and negotiated an agreement that is rejected by the full opposition, half of her party, and her vital allies in Northern Ireland.
Once the usual speeches are over, the conservative government’s desperate calls to convince Parliament to vote in favor of the agreement are ignored. The vote ends with 344 votes against and only 286 in favor. With this new defeat, May’s government seems a lost cause, Parliament has fallen into dysfunction, and Brexit looks like an impossible challenge to solve. However, from the backbenchers, Boris Johnson’s political instinct is calculating whether this new defeat of May will allow him to take power and resolve the issue that has caused his two Conservative colleagues’ fall and paralyzed British politics: Brexit.
Almost two years have passed since that momentous vote that sentenced May to political death, and the picture is profoundly different. The Conservative Party achieved an overwhelming majority in the 2019 general elections. This led the U.K. to officially leave the E.U. in January last year and renegotiating in just one year (amid a pandemic) the parameters of the new trade relations between Britain and the European Union, a task that many analysts and commentators predicted as almost impossible. How did Boris Johnson manage to get out of the political crossroads that was Brexit?
Taking back control?
One of the most popular slogans during the Brexit campaign in 2016 was “Take Back Control” since it encompassed one of the main promises of the Eurosceptic campaign: to recover the power and sovereignty that had been given to Brussels as the price to pay to be part of the largest economic block in the world.
This was the dilemma faced by the British political establishment as it pondered its new relationship with the E.U.: what is more valuable, political sovereignty, or economic expediency? On the one hand, some argued that what was best for the U.K. was a complete separation of regulations dictated by Europe, which could mean closure of that market to British products and services. Others wanted London to follow almost all European regulations, even if they no longer had a voice in their formulation.
For those who voted for it, the struggle for Brexit was always an issue that went beyond macroeconomic indices or trade balances; it was an issue of national identity. Boris Johnson understood this and made it a priority that London could “regain control over its laws, borders and money,” even flirting with the possibility of not reaching an explicit agreement with the E.U. This would have forced both actors to raise tariff barriers that would devastate both economies.
For weeks, talks between the two blocs even seemed destined to fail because there was no agreement on E.U. fishing rights over British territorial waters. Although fishing makes up less than 1% of British GDP, the issue was a political symbol: Brexit’s promise to regain control and Boris seemed willing to torpedo the whole process over this issue.
However, part of this conflicting Johnson rhetoric seems to have been part of a strategy to delay the signing of the agreement until the last possible moment and to force the E.U. to offer better terms, an agreement that would respect the spirit of the objective Johnson set himself. Unlike May, Boris created the credible threat of an undesirable scenario (“No Deal”) to bring the negotiations to a more favorable terrain for his government. He knew how to take advantage of the few advantages he had over the E.U. at the negotiating table.
The question is, did Boris achieve that goal? In general terms, yes. The United Kingdom is no longer subject to the European Court of Justice jurisdiction. It is completely free to negotiate other trade agreements with the rest of the world and can ignore European regulations if it so wishes (even if this causes retaliation from the E.U.). This year a new migration system will come into force that will replace the freedom of movement that characterizes the European common market.
On the complex issue of fishing rights, Boris agreed to a compromise with Europe, giving them access to the British seas during a five-year transition period in which British vessels will gradually have a majority of annual fishing quotas. After 2026, the British government will decide whether to exclude European ships from access to its territorial waters completely.
Johnson achieved all this without the need to impose draconian tariff barriers on Europe; the U.K. agreed to duty-free and quota-free access to the European market on an annual basis, no doubt a great political achievement. However, Boris achieved all this at a price: Northern Ireland.
A Disunited Kingdom: Tensions in Northern Ireland and Scotland
One of the main problems in the Brexit negotiation process was the issue of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This is the only land border between the U.K. and the E.U. and home to one of the bloodiest sectarian conflicts in post-war Western Europe. Let us remember that it was in these territories of Ireland (Ulster) where the IRA and Unionist militias fought a violent urban guerrilla war, some for Irish reunification and others for remaining loyal to the London government in a conflict that left 3500 dead.
If the United Kingdom wanted to diverge from European norms and laws, it was necessary to implement some border controls between the two regions of the island to maintain the common European market’s integrity. This raised fears of reviving tensions between the Protestant and Catholic communities in a region still living under the specter of sectarian violence. On the other hand, if the United Kingdom wanted to maintain the status quo on the Irish border (open and uncontrolled), then it had to accept some kind of regulatory alignment with the mainland.
Since few politicians were willing to risk violence in Northern Ireland by imposing a strict border between the two countries, the question was where to draw the line between the two unions or draw the line at all.
This dilemma proved to be an insurmountable obstacle for May, who practically decided to keep the United Kingdom within the European Customs Union not to introduce a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. This is something that displeased those who were the biggest proponents of Brexit as it forced London to follow European regulations and prevented them from negotiating trade agreements with other countries.
Boris Johnson made a difficult decision, which was severely criticized by Irish unionists: to draw a regulatory line in the sea separating Northern Ireland from Great Britain. Northern Ireland is still part of the Union but will follow various European regulations, so goods from the rest of the country will have to be checked before they reach the Northern Irish coast.
This presents a long-term challenge to the state of the British union. If the northern provinces of Ireland are to follow different regulations than the rest of the Kingdom, many will wonder whether it will still be worthwhile to remain loyal to the Westminster government or whether it will be better to integrate into the Republic of Ireland.
The integrity of the United Kingdom will not only be tested in the Ulster territories; Brexit gives more strength to the political movement that threatens to dissolve the union established in 1707, the Scottish separatism represented by the Scottish National Party (SNP).
In 2014 Scotland had an independence referendum. The population decided to maintain its support for the British Union by a margin of 10 points, in an apparently fatal blow to the Scottish nationalist cause. However, the Pandora’s box of independence had already been opened and the Brexit inflamed, even more, the delicate situation between London and Edinburgh.
Not only has the SNP become the dominant party in Scotland, once a fiefdom of Labour, but this region voted overwhelmingly against Brexit, with approximately 2/3 of the Scottish electorate voting ‘Remain.’ This combination of factors has served as the SNP’s rhetorical spearhead to pressure London to hold a second independence referendum, arguing that Scotland is being expelled from the E.U. against its will.
This year there are elections for the Scottish local government, and Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP hopes that a good result will be the beginning of an inexorable march towards independence.
Brexit done, now what?
The signing of the Trade Agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union has been, without a doubt, the greatest political achievement of Johnson’s career and has brought a momentary respite from the barrage of bad news and headlines that has been his government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, of which he fell victim in the middle of last year.
Boris Johnson achieved the impossible. He cut the European Gordian knot. Even the Labour Party, now led by Sir Keir Starmer and not by the unpresentable Corbyn, voted for his final deal. While May never got more than 300 votes in favor, Boris achieved a vote of 521 MPs. Many commentators and political rivals have fallen into the error of underestimating Johnson, believing that his eccentric personality is synonymous with political incompetence; those who continue to underestimate the Prime Minister today do so at their peril.
Although there are still some important details to be finalized, such as access to European markets for British financial firms, the reality is that Brexit ended, and “brexiteers” won the fight. However, it is now in the government’s hands to redefine the U.K.’s role in the world. Will Johnson be able to transform the UK into a “Global Britain,” or will the Brexit end up turning the country into a shadow of what it once was, a “Little England”?
Boris Johnson’s task is daunting. He needs to redefine the Kingdom’s role in the global economy while trying to maintain the integrity of the U.K. in the face of powerful nationalist forces in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Seems impossible, as Brexit did in 2019.
Daniel Chang is a student of Political Science and Economics at the University of South Florida, head of international analysis at Politiks and legislative intern in the U.S. House of Representatives. @DanielEChangC