Queen Elizabeth II has granted royal assent to Boris Johnson’s Brexit Bill paving the way for Britain’s exit from the EU. However, according to international scholars, Johnson’s political “honeymoon” will soon be over as he is facing trade talks with the EU and the need to calm down secessionist sentiment in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Brexit will soon cross “the finish line” as the Withdrawal Agreement passed its final parliamentary obstacles and was approved by the Queen.
The Commons rejected five amendments proposed by the Lords which, however, did not stall the passage of the legislation. On 31 January, the UK will formally leave the European Union and enter a transition period during which the country will still have to abide by the bloc’s rules despite ceasing to be a member.
The UK Facing Three Scenarios of Trade Talks
According to Alex de Ruyter, director of the Centre for Brexit Studies at Birmingham City University, the UK’s actual withdrawal from the EU is not as easy as it seems: “The country remains deeply divided and uncertainty will continue until the government and the EU can agree on a trade deal going forward”, the scholar observes.
De Ruyter outlines three possible scenarios with regard to the upcoming trade agreement:
- First, UK government’s seemingly preferred approach of a Canada-style free trade agreementthat would ensure a zero-tariff regime on manufactured goods and some regulatory alignment to keep supply chains “frictionless”.
However, it seems doubtful that this option can be negotiated by the end of the year, he notes, adding that the EU itself will not commence negotiations until March.
- Second, due to the UK government’s stated position of a one-year transition period they will fail to negotiate a new agreement with the EU and the UK will revert to WTO status, facing tariff and non-tariff barriers.
Though this is “distinctly possible”, according to the scholar, “this would cause severe disruption to supply chains and could lead to the demise of key manufacturing sectors such as the automotive, putting thousands of jobs at risk”.
- Third, “both sides come up with a ‘fudge’ and effectively extend the transition period, but refer to it as something else, such as ‘review and implementation period’ or some such, which would allow both sides to claim that a ‘deal’ has been reached and therefore only to sort out the legal details over another couple of years”, de Ruyter suggests, putting the probability of this particular scenario over 50 percent.
Hard Brexit & Scottish Indepedence
UK-EU trade negotiations are not the only potential problem standing in Britain’s way out of the bloc.
Panicos Demetriades, professor of financial economics at the University of Leicester and former governor of the Central Bank of Cyprus, places emphasis on “political uncertainty” related to the future of the UK and its unity. He refers to Scotland’s earlier threats to leave the UK in the event of a “hard” exit from the European bloc.
“If Scotland were to leave the UK and rejoin the EU, it would also have to adopt the euro”, Demetriades presumes. “This will have a massive impact on the role of the pound as an international currency – it will no longer be the ‘British’ pound! I do not think any prime minister will want that to happen”.
Scotland already held an independence referendum on 18 September 2014. The “No” side won with 2,001,926 votes against independence and 1,617,989 in favour of independence.
This time, the professor does not rule out “a unilateral declaration of independence”: “If Westminster continues to reject an independence referendum for Scotland, it can only lead to further alienation of Scottish voters”, Demetriades says.
The only way for Johnson to preserve the UK’s unity in this case is “to try and negotiate a Brexit that is soft enough to change the balance of opinion in Scotland”, according to the academic.
Northern Ireland & Irish Referendum on Reunification
A similar situation applies to Northern Ireland, according to Dr Roslyn Fuller, Canadian-Irish author, columnist, and director of the Dublin-based non-profit think tank Solonian Democracy Institute.
She presumes that Boris Johnson will have to “somehow weld the United Kingdom back together, in particular by appealing to voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland”, stressing that in the wake of Brexit the reunification issue has emerged again among the Irish.
Sinn Fein, a left-wing Irish republican political party is now calling for a referendum on reunification by 2025.
“Many people in the Republic of Ireland felt that post Good-Friday Agreement they were gradually drifting towards reunification at some distant point – Brexit was an unpleasant wake-up call as to how immediate the issue still is”, Fuller suggests. “It is unlikely that they will forget that unpleasant shock too soon, even if the issues surrounding customs and border control pertaining to Northern Ireland can be resolved efficiently. That means that reunification is back on everyone’s minds”.
While it is unclear how the British prime minister is going to handle these issues, “in a certain sense, one could say that Johnson won the war on Brexit, but now he has to ‘win the peace’ of long-term implementation”, the Canadian-Irish author concludes.