So, at last, it happened. Three and a half years after a referendum, two general elections and seemingly interminable Parliamentary travails, on 31st January Brexit finally got done.
But extricating us from the EU is only the beginning of the process for Boris Johnson. The next step is to forge a new trading relationship not only with the EU, but with the rest of the world.
And on 3rd February, in the gorgeous setting of the Royal Naval College’s Painted Hall at Greenwich, Boris set out his stall. Speaking with characteristic brio under Thornhill’s famous ceiling, he laid out his vision of a dynamic, outward-looking country, committed to the quintessentially British economic ideal of free trade.
Rightly noting that over recent years the world had witnessed the regrettable ascendancy of protectionism, with tariffs being “waved around like cudgels even in debates on foreign policy, where frankly they have no place“, Boris identified the UK’s future international role as “the champion of the right of the populations of the Earth to buy and sell freely among each other.”
In response, the European Union appears to have nothing new to offer. Michel Barnier tediously reprises his greatest hits from the first round of negotiations. There will have to be strict sequencing of talks, he sternly informs us. Before we discuss anything else, the UK will have to submit to EU regulatory standards, accept EU access to British fisheries and acknowledge that the final agreement must exclude Gibraltar. Oh, and the European Court of Justice must retain judicial oversight.
In reply, Boris retorts that the UK already not only meets EU regulatory standards, but in many respects actually exceeds them and has no inclination to reduce them. Access to UK waters may be negotiated, but strictly on a year-to-year basis. And as for Gibraltar – well, that treaty-conferred piece of British territory must naturally be included in the agreement.
The relationship Boris seeks is similar to the one that Canada already enjoys with the European Union; otherwise, we will go for an Australian style deal – essentially a World Trade Organisation arrangement with additional standalone provisions. That position was reinforced with admirable clarity by the lead British negotiator, David Frost, in a speech delivered at Brussels last Monday.
After these opening salvos, talks with the EU will continue – but in parallel with similar negotiations with Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the CPTPP and, of course, the United States. Boris is determined that the UK will enthusiastically pursue truly global free trade, not a clone of the rejected, over-regulated, unlamented former relationship with the EU.
Doubtless, Boris‘s speech was received with little acclamation within the echoing corridors of Berlaymont. But at least the EU can’t say they have not been warned. Boris commands a big majority in Parliament and has an overwhelming mandate from the British people. Unlike his predecessor, he holds a strong hand of cards. The EU would do well to treat him with respect, drop the posturing, and start to negotiate seriously.