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31 January 2020updated 04 Sep 2021 4:21pm

The UK leaves the EU today but the real Brexit Day may be 31 December

Nigel Farage is wrong: what comes next is far more than “detail”.

By Dave Keating

Amid the theatrics from partying Brexiteers and weeping Remainers packing their bags in Brussels this week, has been a cold hard reality: the events of the next months will determine whether Brexit is a success or a catastrophe. “What happens at 11pm this 31 January 2020, marks the point of no return,” Nigel Farage triumphantly told his fellow members of the European Parliament ahead of their vote to approve the Brexit withdrawal deal on Wednesday. “Once we’ve left we are never coming back and the rest, frankly, is detail.”

It was a fiery speech on an emotional day in the parliament, a day that brought more than a few British MEPs to tears. For Brexit Party and Conservative MEPs, raucously hollering and waving union jacks during the parliamentary debate, those were tears of joy. For the rest, they were tears of despair as their legislators bid them a fond farewell and sent them off with a rendition of “Auld Lang Syne”. “The tradition of the British stiff upper lip isn’t quite what it used to be,” observed Green MEP Molly Scott Cato.

At a bare-bones reception organised by the parliament to say goodbye to the 73 departing British MEPs, Remainers spoke in chillingly stark terms of their fear for what comes next. Conservatives tried, rather unconvincingly, to project confidence in a prosperous future relationship between the EU and Britain. And Brexit Party MEPs, knocking back drinks of uncertain provenance (it was a dry reception), seemed to not have a care in the world. For them, the job is done. After 27 years of campaigning, Farage is declaring victory this week. Whatever happens next, for him, is just details.

But it is the detail that will determine Farage’s legacy. For the Eurosceptics to truly claim victory, Brexit can not just happen – it has to be a success. For his part, the latter part seems to be of little interest. But leaving was the easy bit. Now the difficult part begins. And it’s a put up or shut up moment for Brexiteers.

When 11pm strikes tonight, 31 January, there will be almost no impact on anybody’s lives other than the MEPs who have just lost their jobs. Johnson’s Brexit deal contains a transition period that means the UK will still have all the benefits and obligations of EU membership until the end of this year, with the possibility of extension until 2023. That means nothing will change in terms of tariffs, freedom of movement or applicability of EU law. For the moment, the UK is leaving in name only.

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What will change is that the UK will no longer have a vote in shaping that law. It will have lost its seat in the European Commission (the EU’s executive), its seats in the European Parliament (the EU’s lower legislative chamber) and its vote in the Council of the EU (the EU’s upper legislative chamber). It will be a rule-taker rather than a rule-maker, much like the situation Norway, Iceland and Switzerland have been in for the past 25 years.

Next week there will inevitably be comments from those Brexiteers who are not following the situation very closely saying: “See, Brexit happened and everything’s fine.” But it will only be a matter of time before those people realise that EU law still applies to them. That is why Boris Johnson is intent on making sure the transition period doesn’t last any longer than 11 months. He has ruled out asking for an extension and enshrined that position in law.

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The British government says it is aiming for a Canada-style free trade agreement with the EU. But in Brussels, the prospect of being able to negotiate such a comprehensive FTA in just 11 months is viewed as dim. The deal with Canada took 10 years to negotiate and had to be approved by all 28 national parliaments. In the case of Belgium, each regional parliament had to approve it, and it was almost defeated at the last moment by Wallonia. With the anti-free-trade move taking hold in Europe and the Americas, people remarked at the time that it might be the last significant free trade deal the EU ever signed.

The stakes for the next months are huge and already things are looking bad for the UK side. Internal council documents seen this week show that the EU will not be ready to start negotiations until 3 March at the earliest, despite EU27 leaders having said they wanted to begin negotiations immediately after Brexit day at their summit in December. It is taking time to get agreement among 27 different countries on what the negotiating mandate should be. Many in Brussels view the possibility of a cliff-edge no-deal Brexit to now be more likely than it was in October before Johnson agreed his deal. With conclusion in ten months seen as an impossibility, and Johnson ruling out extension, there is no doubt that the default path is toward no deal. Something needs to change if Europe is to deviate from that path.

Today is hugely important symbolically and politically for the UK and the EU. The Union Jack will be taken down in Brussels, and the UK will no longer be coloured in blue on the EU map. Thousands of Wikipedia entries will have to be changed overnight.

But materially, the real “Brexit Day” may be 31 December. That is the day when, overnight, British businesses and citizens could lose their access the EU goods, travel and rights. Might a very bare-bones deal be struck to mitigate the most dramatic impacts, to prevent people from being deported and airplanes grounded on runways? Perhaps, but even this could prove more complicated than expected. And it would not shield the UK from the economic impacts of leaving without a real deal. If Johnson does not ask to extend the transition period by the deadline this summer, it is likely the EU will abandon full FTA talks and pivot to reaching such a bare-bones emergency arrangement.

What happens from tomorrow is far more than “detail” Farage seems to imagine. It will determine whether Brexit is a success or a catastrophe. He of all people should be concerned about that legacy.

Dave Keating is a Brussels-based journalist covering EU politics (@davekeating)