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UK commits decisively to Brexit as Johnson wins election

Conservative Party secures large majority in UK poll

The United Kingdom is on course finally to leave the EU on January 31, following a decisive victory for prime minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party in Thursday’s UK General Election.

The party achieved an overall majority of almost 80 seats in the new House of Commons, giving Johnson a clear mandate for the next five years, and finally bringing the first part of the UK’s long-running Brexit saga to a conclusion.

After two-and-a half years of minority government since June 2017, during which dramatic knife-edge votes on key issues in Parliament had become commonplace, Johnson will now have much more freedom to push his Brexit agenda through with minimal risk of disruption.

Opposition parties, which had favoured a renegotiation of the UK’s Withdrawal Agreement with the EU and a second referendum on UK membership of the EU, suffered serious losses in Thursday’s election, notably Labour, the main opposition party, which lost around 60 seats.

The centrist and pro-European Liberal Democrat party failed to make any impression, with its party leader, Jo Swinson, losing her own seat in parliament.

What happens next on Brexit?

The result means that the UK will now definitely leave the EU at the end of January, with no further delays.

It has already been announced that the new parliament will sit next Friday (December 19) to pass the necessary legislation to enact Brexit. This will need to be confirmed by a vote in the House of Lords in January, but this will not form a barrier to passing the relevant legislation.

However, from February 1 onwards the situation becomes, once again, rather less clear.

The UK will no longer be a member state, but it will enter into a transition period until the end of 2020, during which time the UK’s trade relationship with the EU will remain fundamentally unchanged.

During this period, the UK and the EU will enter into detailed negotiations on a new future relationship, with a free trade agreement at its heart.

In theory, this transition period will last no more than 11 months, and Johnson claimed during the election campaign that he will seek no extension to this period (the Withdrawal Agreement provides for the possibility of an extension of one or two years).

Most analysts, however, believe it will be practically impossible to negotiate a deal in such a short period of time. 

What kind of EU-UK relationship?

As the result, the focus in the coming months will shift rapidly to the substance of the negotiations. On the EU side, an urgent priority will be to draw up negotiating objectives for what is about to become its most significant FTA negotiation yet. The UK too must put flesh on the bones of its position for the future relationship. 

But it is already clear that the key theme in the discussions will be divergence. The UK has made clear that it wants to leave the EU’s single market and customs union, and to give itself the freedom to do its own trade deals with third countries.

But the EU’s main preoccupation will be with maintaining a ‘level playing field’, in the sense of not allowing the UK to gain significant commercial advantages over its European neighbours by embarking on a course of major deregulation. The Commission has stated that it will only be prepared to offer completely tariff-free trade between the two sides if the UK is prepared to make serious commitments in this area.

Thus, while the UK will be anxious to make progress on securing the post-Brexit ‘trophy’ of a headline trade agreement with the United States – and President Trump has already confirmed his readiness to do “a massive new trade deal” with the UK – there remain open and so far largely unaddressed questions about how the UK could accede to US demands in areas like food quality standards without jeopardising its relationship with the EU.

A more stable political environment

At a political level, the fact that prime minister Johnson now has a stable and comfortable majority in parliament may well change the tone of the Brexit debate.

For the first time since the Brexit referendum on June 2016, the UK government will be free to pursue its agenda without constantly looking over its shoulder at dissident MPs with the power to vote the government’s plans down if their views are not sufficiently taken into account.

The UK will thus now be free to negotiate with its external partners, instead of being constantly locked into what has often amounted to a negotiation with itself.

Although Johnson’s commitment to a fairly ‘hard’ form of Brexit will not change, he will at least find it much easier to take pragmatic decisions such as extending the EU transition period until the end of 2022 – which many analysts believe he will ultimately have to do.

UK to plough its own furrow on agricultural policy

In the area of agriculture policy, the Conservatives will now push ahead with their radical plan to shift away from CAP-style direct aid payments and move towards a philosophy of ‘public money for public goods’. 

By 2028, following a seven-year transition period, farmers in England will receive subsidies only if they are contributing to specified environmental or climate change objectives, or are farming in geographically less-favoured areas.

But this in turn will create its own dilemmas around the familiar themes of divergence and competition.

Can UK agriculture genuinely thrive if its products are having to compete against zero-tariff imports from their Continental neighbours who are being more heavily subsidised under the CAP?

Now that the fog over Britain’s Brexit future has lifted (a little), these are the questions which must now be directly addressed.

Will the UK remain a ‘United’ Kingdom?

Farm policies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will continue to differ from those in England, as they already have done for many years under the CAP.

But the election result throws up some interesting questions about the whole longer-term future of the United Kingdom. Forty-eight of the 59 seats in Scotland have been won by the Scottish National Party, which is strongly opposed to Brexit, and which has pledged to push for a fresh referendum  on Scottish independence.

In Northern Ireland, meanwhile – the territory which has been at the heart of so much of the Brexit controversy – Irish nationalist parties won more seats than Unionists parties, the first time this has ever happened.

Set against the backdrop of the contentious Brexit plan to create a special status for Northern Ireland as being effectively within both the UK and EU customs territories, this result will inevitably spark speculation on whether this marks the beginning of a drift towards an eventual reunion of Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic.

The more immediate picture, however, is of a UK prime minister being given a clear mandate to proceed with his plans to forge a new relationship with the EU, and with the rest of the world. Time will tell how successful this endeavour turns out to be.

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