Johnson's race for trade deal strengthens EU hand

UK PM Boris Johnson, 17 Oct 19 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption EU leaders and Boris Johnson agreed on a revised UK Brexit deal in October

Over and over again in this election campaign you hear supporters of Boris Johnson confidently asserting that "he did it with the Brexit deal: he got the EU to renegotiate when most people said it'd be impossible.

"So who cares about those who now openly doubt his ability to get a trade deal done with the EU by December next year? The doubters were wrong before. They'll be proved wrong again."

Except, it seems to be overlooked that Prime Minister Johnson did not charm or bully or manipulate the EU into reopening the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement and changing the infamous backstop for the Irish border.

It was only by breaking a deep red line of his, very late on in the negotiations, that EU leaders wholeheartedly agreed to a "new" Brexit deal (that in reality was almost identical to the one negotiated by Theresa May).

If you remember, Mr Johnson had pledged never to allow a post-Brexit division between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

But in the end that is exactly what he did.

Different rules for Northern Ireland

While on paper and in legal terms Mr Johnson has ensured that Northern Ireland would leave the EU's customs union and single market along with Great Britain, practically speaking Northern Ireland would continue adhering to the EU's customs code and being part of the EU's single market for goods.

Boris Johnson's divorce deal introduces a customs barrier down the Irish Sea. A barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Something Mr Johnson had said he would never countenance.

EU leaders negotiated with Boris Johnson in the hope that he would better be able to sell a deal back home in the UK than his predecessor, Mrs May. But they only signed on the dotted line of the backstop's replacement because they were confident that it protected their single market on the island of Ireland after Brexit.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The border at Newry: A majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU

For the prime minister, "getting it done" seemed of greater importance when it came to the Brexit deal than keeping his word about the union and avoiding a line down the Irish Sea. So how might it be when it comes to trade negotiations?

Deal deadline pressure

Would Boris Johnson give up post-Brexit "sovereignty" and "control" to get a quick deal done with the EU by next Christmas?

Because if you earwig on EU internal conversations these days, you'll hear that the only way he has a real chance of getting a bare-bones free trade agreement (FTA) with Brussels done and dusted by next Christmas is if he crosses his own red lines again and gives in to EU concerns. This time over so-called level playing field provisions (such as adhering to EU environmental, labour and state aid rules after Brexit) and allowing EU countries fishing rights in UK waters.

If Mr Johnson signs up to ongoing alignment with EU rules, then where's the national sovereignty he promised voters?

But if he doesn't, then trade negotiations with Brussels are likely to drag on a lot, lot longer. And could delay closing trade deals with other countries. Japan, Canada, Australia and others are unlikely to want to sign off on a new trade deal with a post-Brexit UK until they know what kind of relationship it will have with the EU.

Something else to bear in mind: if Boris Johnson did maintain close ties with the EU, then Brexit-associated divisions between Northern Ireland and Great Britain would diminish; Brussels would have less need for checks, controls and paperwork to closely monitor what is coming in or going out of its single market/customs territory via the island of Ireland.

It all comes down to not being able to have your cake and eat it.

Those trade-offs - which so many politicians seem very reluctant to come clean about this election season.

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