This article was published on December 17, 2019.
Boris Johnson is planning to redraft his government’s Brexit bill to rule out any extension of the transition period beyond 2020.
The reports come despite warnings from Brussels that a comprehensive trade deal cannot be achieved in that timeframe – and puts another “no deal scenario” firmly back on the table.
It also illustrates the prime minister’s stated intention to seek a “Canada-style” free trade agreement with relatively low alignment to EU rules. Johnson is also said to be ready to ditch previous promises to give MPs oversight of trade deal negotiations and guarantee workers’ rights.
The planned changes are due to be included in the Withdrawal Agreement Bill which MPs are due to vote on later this week, to assure the UK’s departure from the EU at the end of January 2020 on the terms of the revised divorce deal.
Ruling out an extension to the transition period would confirm a commitment contained in the Conservatives’ election manifesto – but it stands to raise the stakes in post-Brexit trade talks.
There has been speculation that the Johnson government might pivot towards a softer Brexit and perhaps extend the transition period to facilitate a deal.
Given his large parliamentary majority following the Tories' election landslide, he could face down hardcore Eurosceptic Brexiteers on whose support the government no longer depends.
But the latest developments suggest the new administration is determined to scotch that rumour.
The prime minister has said he can strike a “fanstastic” free trade deal with the EU by December 2020. But by seeking looser ties to the EU, the likelihood of regulatory barriers between Britain and Europe increases – although it could make it easier to pursue a trade deal with the US.
Roughly half of the UK’s trade is with the EU, compared to under a fifth with America.
If the UK and the EU fail to strike a trade deal next year, the two sides will trade on World Trade Organisation terms. This would mean tariffs, quotas and regulatory checks – bringing likely disruption to supply chains and an economic shock on both sides of the Channel.
This is why the build-up to such a scenario is described as a “cliff-edge”, although next year it would not affect issues covered in the Withdrawal Agreement - such as citizens’ rights and arrangements for Northern Ireland – which will be protected by an international treaty.
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said recently that expecting to achieve a “global negotiation” in 11 months was “unrealistic”, but the EU would do “all we can” to secure a “vital minimum” relationship with the UK.
Boris Johnson engaged in similar sabre-rattling with the EU upon becoming prime minister in July, vowing that the UK would pursue a no-deal exit from the EU if necessary.
He did succeed in renegotiating part of the divorce deal, ditching the Irish border “backstop” – but only by making significant concessions.