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Brexit talks: the brutal reckoning that awaits the UK

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Many EU member states are calling for a very hard line with the UK in talks on the future relationship.

When and if Brexit is finally delivered, a vast array of questions will immediately spring up
When and if Brexit is finally delivered, a vast array of questions will immediately spring up.


Britain’s prime minister told the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) on Monday that victory in the December 12th general election will allow him to “get Brexit done” and then swiftly broker an agreement with the EU on the two sides’ future relationship.

Noting the UK would embark on trade talks from a place of “perfect alignment and harmony” after leaving the EU on January 31st, he told business chiefs he saw “absolutely no reason” why an agreement could not be reached by the end of next year.

It is a line the Conservatives will stick to in their campaigning ahead of polling day as they warn victory for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party would mean more “dither and drift” on Brexit. Mr. Corbyn claimed at the same conference that the Tories’ approach would “subject us to years of drawn-out, bogged down negotiations” with Brussels on a future relationship deal. He said his approach of holding a second referendum would deliver clarity sooner.

But as politicians spar over who is best placed to lead Britain out of its Brexit quagmire, top officials in Brussels believe the UK population faces a brutal reckoning for which it is ill-prepared. EU officials have been preparing for negotiations with the UK on the post-Brexit relationship for more than two years, and behind the scenes, many member states are urging them to take a very hard line indeed.

British prime minister Boris Johnson: ‘absolutely no reason’ why an agreement with EU could not be reached by end of next year. Photograph: FRANK AUGSTEIN/POOL/AFP via Getty ImagesBritish prime minister Boris Johnson: ‘absolutely no reason’ why an agreement with the EU could not be reached by end of next year. Photograph: FRANK AUGSTEIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images


Worst thing’

“What is going to come is going to be much more challenging and demanding than what we have seen up to now,” says one senior EU diplomat. “I would not wish to negotiate a trade deal with the EU on anybody. It’s the worst thing that can happen to you, especially if your administration doesn’t have any experience negotiating trade issues.”

When and if Brexit is finally delivered, a vast array of questions will immediately spring up. The two sides will need to do their best to safeguard a trading relationship worth £650 billion (€758 billion) in 2018, as well as define the terms of co-operation on everything from air transport to fighting terrorism.

The talks will take place to the beat of a ticking clock. The UK’s post-Brexit transition period will expire at the end of 2020 unless Britain requests an extension by the middle of next year – something Mr. Johnson is loath to do.

Both Mr. Johnson and Phil Hogan, the EU’s incoming trade commissioner, have emphasized the two sides are not starting from scratch.

Mr. Hogan told RTÉ last week that Brussels would seek to kick off the negotiations swiftly, noting the UK’s 46 years of EU membership created a unique context: one where Britain is integrated into the European market and in sync with its rules.

“With a bit of goodwill on both sides we can do an agreement more quickly than we would do with any other negotiations around the world, which would take three or four years,” he said.

Mr. Johnson told the CBI the two sides would begin talks “in a state of grace as far as our tariffs and our quotas are concerned”.

“There is no other trade negotiation the EU has ever embarked upon with a third country where that has been the case,” he said.

Another advantage is Mr. Johnson and the EU have already agreed a 27-page political declaration setting out their shared vision of the future relationship. It forms part of the Brexit deal he struck with the bloc in October.

At the heart of the relationship would be a free-trade deal ensuring duty-free and quota-free access for goods, and providing market access for services at least similar to that granted in the EU’s recent trade deals with Canada and Japan. The declaration also covers other key areas of co-operation such as nuclear energy and joint military operations.

The City of London is preparing to lose the right to offer services across the EU
The City of London is preparing to lose the right to offer services across the EU


Highly sensitive issues

But EU diplomats warn that putting flesh on the bones of these plans will require a hard-fought negotiation and that the question of how far the UK is prepared to stick to EU rules will be one of several highly sensitive issues needing to be resolved.

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, has already made clear Brussels will be guided in the talks by a simple principle: the further the UK aims to diverge from EU rules in Mr. Johnson’s avowed quest to boost the country’s economic competitiveness, the more restricted Britain’s access to the single market will be.

The EU argues it is being asked to grant Britain market access on goods going beyond any other trade deal the bloc has with a major economy, creating a clear risk of unfair competition for Europe’s companies. Such access will come at the price of sticking closely to EU law on workers rights, environmental standards, state aid, and other rules.

Britain, by contrast, argues a free-trade deal is a fundamentally looser economic relationship than membership of the EU’s single market and customs union, and that it would be hypocritical for Brussels to demand far more alignment than it has done in negotiations with other countries. Dominic Raab, the UK’s foreign secretary, said on Sunday that the country is “not going to align ourselves to EU rules”.