Whatever one’s feelings about its outcome, it cannot be denied that the December 2019 general election restored an element that had been missing from British politics for over three years: clarity.
The Conservatives campaigned on a promise to “get Brexit done”. The electorate responded by giving them a majority of 80 seats, their biggest for over 30 years. The message could not have been clearer: voters wanted to leave the EU and, what’s more, they wanted the Government to crack on with it.
And that is precisely what the Government has done. The European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill passed through the Commons last week. It is now in the Lords and, while peers are expected to try to amend it, they have little prospect of succeeding.
The UK will consequently leave the European Union at 11:00 pm on 31 January – sadly, it seems, without the accompanying chimes of Big Ben, which has been muted by building work.
Leaving the EU, however, is not the end of the story. The Withdrawal Agreement provides for the UK to remain subject to EU regulations and contribute to the EU budget during a transitional period, which will end on 31 December 2020. During that period, the UK and EU will seek to agree their future relationship: a free trade agreement (FTA), as provided for in the Political Declaration (PD) that accompanies the Withdrawal Agreement.
Already, mutterings are being heard in Brussels. The new Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, last week expressed doubt that an FTA could be concluded in 2020. There would need to be an extension of the transitional period, she said. This week she demanded continued freedom of movement of people, saying: “You can’t have no free movement for people and then expect to have free movement for goods, capital and services. It’s either all four; have free movement, or none of this is possible.”
This all sounds desperately discouraging, but I would be disinclined to take Ms von der Leyen’s bluster too seriously. It has all the hallmarks of an opening negotiating position. In other words, it is a bluff, which the British Government should call.
To begin with, the PD itself provides that the parties should “begin the formal process of negotiations as soon as possible after the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the Union, such that they can come into force by the end of 2020.” Clearly, therefore, the EUhad no concerns about timescale when it agreed the PD in October last year.
As for freedom of movement, that is not usually a component of FTAs, which are concerned with trade, not nation-building. Ms von der Leyen is clearly experiencing difficulty in coming to terms with the simple fact that, after the end of this year, the UK will be a fully independent country, outside the EU project.
Of course, nobody is suggesting that the negotiations will be easy. They won’t. Nevertheless, a good outcome is entirely achievable. All it requires is goodwill – a commodity that must be displayed on both sides.