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6 September 2019updated 08 Jun 2021 11:19am

How limiting EU trade deal negotiations to one year may cause problems for Boris Johnson

By Stephen Bush

Boris Johnson will redraw the Withdrawal Agreement Bill to make it illegal to extend the transition period past the end of 2020, leaving him with just a year to negotiate a free-trade agreement with the European Union.

It means another round of EU-UK negotiations against the backdrop of a ticking clock – ending in economic damage for both sides, but with the damage falling asymmetrically on the UK. There is one significant difference: thanks to Boris Johnson’s Northern Ireland protocol, which puts a regulatory border in the Irish Sea, the European Union can go for a no-deal Brexit without causing chaos on Ireland’s border with Northern Ireland.

The average length of time taken to negotiate a trade deal is three years (if you’re being kind about when you calculate the start and end dates). The EU’s trade deal with Canada took five years to strike. The EU’s trade deal with South Korea took four. The US-Canada-Mexico trade deal took six years to negotiate, the preceding accord between the US and Canada took eight years. The EU-UK trade deal is unprecedented because it is the first trade deal in history to involve the creation of new barriers to trade rather than the removal of them.

Of course, the main reason why trade talks take so long isn’t that trade negotiators type slowly – it’s that the political interests of the negotiating partners take a long time to reconcile. If the UK wants to strike an agreement in which it has low market access, remains part of the EU’s level-playing field and its labour market is still relatively open to EU member states, that deal could be signed, sealed and delivered in weeks.

But can the British government sign that kind of deal?

On one hand, yes, Labour went down to a landslide defeat last Thursday. But a landslide defeat doesn’t always mean a landslide majority for the winner: it didn’t for Tony Blair in 2005 and it doesn’t now. Just 40 Conservative MPs can defeat the government – and, of course, the number of Conservative MPs in the ERG is still greater than 40. Yes, Boris Johnson is flush with success, but so was Tony Blair in 1997, when 47 Labour MPs voted against his plans to cut lone-parent benefits and 100 more abstained. Margaret Thatcher was at the peak of her powers in 1986: but 72 Conservative MPs voted against her plans to scrap rules on Sunday trading.

What both of those rebellions have in common is that they were parliamentary rebellions against leaders as powerful as Boris Johnson is now, and rebellions of sufficient size to capsize his majority with room to spare. Equally importantly they were rebellions that went with, rather than against, the grain of party opinion in the country as a whole. Now, bluntly, Brexiteers have proven themselves to be defeated by detail – they cheered Theresa May’s joint report on the Irish border and took the best part of a year to realise the implications of it. It may be that Johnson can similarly present retreat as a victory for long enough to keep his majority intact: he’s done it before with the Irish border, after all. But if his free trade agreement is seen to be a surrender to the EU’s aims and objectives, don’t bet anything that a majority of 80 will be enough to ratify his deal.

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