British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his chief Brexit negotiator, David Frost, achieved an extraordinary success in the negotiations to leave the European Union. At midnight (Brussels time, of course, or 11 p.m. GMT) on December 31, 2020, the United Kingdom exited the one-year transition period and finally escaped the clutches of the EU which, like the tentacles of an octopus, had suffocated the nation for some 50 years.
Prime Minister Johnson accomplished this feat by not blinking at the last minute – something former PM Theresa May did so often that EU negotiators came to expect it. Johnson held firm and made clear we were walking in any event; no extensions to the transition period, no caving on key issues, no further surrender of sovereignty. He seemed so resolved that German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly made calls under pressure from her own industry chiefs, who would have faced utter devastation if tariffs were imposed.
Of course, there was a case to leave on World Trade Organiation terms, with schedules of customs tariffs but no formal arrangements with the EU. This would perhaps have offered the greatest global opportunities long term, but without question there would have been extensive costs in the short and medium terms. Yet by standing firm and being willing to leave on those terms, Prime Minister Johnson gave the UK a stunning result.
Delivering Brexit and exiting the EU has delivered at least four key victories:
Sovereignty restored. One of the most contentious areas of the UK’s relationship with the EU has been the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) as the court of final appeal. The ECJ should be distinguished from the European Court of Human Rights, which is not specifically linked to the EU. During all of the negotiations with PM May and in the months of negotiations with PM Johnson’s team, the EU insisted that the ECJ must be the final arbiter of any dispute. All parties know which way their judgements would have gone. Boris played a blinder: He successfully removed all references to the ECJ in the trade agreement. The court is not mentioned; the law which will determine disputes is not EU law but international law. The process is one of independent arbitration and, crucially, the UK retains the right to diverge from EU law. This restores UK sovereignty. In addition, we are free to negotiate trade deals globally without any reference to or interference from the EU.
Freedom from EU regulatory standards. This is related to the first point but is so significant that it deserves separate mention. The EU wanted automatic penalties and tariffs applied to British goods if the UK departed from the EU’s regulatory standards. They called this the “level playing field.” The agreement replaces it with the principle of managed divergence, which enshrines the right of the UK to differ from regulations imposed by Brussels. It contains no role for the ECJ (as mentioned) but establishes an independent judicial review process and gives only a proportionate and limited right to the EU to impose tariffs under such circumstances. The crucial point is that the UK can choose to free its economy from the EU’s stifling standards, and the EU has no right to respond with wide-ranging, punitive tariffs.
A zero-tariff, zero quota trade agreement. Gaining the principle of free trade between two such enormous trading partners significantly advances the cause of free trade itself. True, customs declarations will still be required, but the principle of no tariffs on either imports or exports, with no quotas on goods, is a major step forward for the principle of free exchange. This is the first time that the EU has ever agreed to a 100% tariff liberalisation in a trade agreement. The agreement is primarily about trade in goods, and critics have pointed out it contains little reference to services, the UK’s comparative advantage. However, it contains mutual professional recognitions, and the City of London is content. The world’s two main global financial services centers will remain New York City and London.
Fishing rights. Currently, the UK fishing fleet is entitled to 50% of the catch share in the waters that will revert to UK sovereignty. This will increase to 66% over the course of five years, after which the UK will hold annual negotiations to agree catch shares. An alternative way of looking at this is to say that the UK reduced the share of fish which the EU is allowed to take from British waters from 50% to 34%. Many UK fishermen wanted even better terms, though it has to be said that the UK fishing fleet needs time to develop in order to be able to take advantage of the increased share. There was undoubtedly some compromise here by the UK, but the overall outcome seems reasonable.
To all of this has to be added control over our own immigration policies; our own regime of “state aid”; and agreements on air travel, security, and scientific co-operation. The agreement itself is 1,246 pages long, and there will no doubt be areas we would prefer to have been different. But leading Brexit attorneys have examined and endorsed the deal.
Note the margin of its sweeping passage: The House of Commons voted 521-73 to accept the legislation. Just 18 months ago, Parliament was deadlocked as Conservative Brexiteers voted against May’s agreement, which left us trapped in the EU. Since then, the December 2019 election has changed the landscape. The Labour Party, desperate after its defeat at the polls, flip-flopped to support the arrangements, though some 40 Labour Members of Parliament abstained. They are likely to continue to be torn by tension as members of a mostly pro-Remain party, since few Britons would ever vote to rejoin the EU.
More than four years after the national referendum and years of failed negotiations, these four advantages – and all those which are to follow – have been secured.