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9 January 2020

Yes, Boris Johnson could get an EU trade deal this year. But at what cost?

The demands made by committed Brexiteers are reasonably easy for the EU to meet — provided the UK is willing to swallow concessions.

By Stephen Bush

Can Boris Johnson really secure a free trade agreement with the European Union in just a year? A question to which the answer is: yes, of course. The more interesting question is: at what cost?

Trade talks tend to drag on because once both sides have reached an agreement they take it back to their respective countries and find that somewhere – whether it be in their cabinet, their parliament or their business lobby – some group or other is making a stink. So they go back and seek another tweak, and this process goes back and forth until eventually you have a trade agreement that suits both sides.

There’s no reason why you can’t skip most of that process, provided one side is willing to take what it’s given. Rightly or wrongly, most European diplomats believe that Johnson’s priority is to sign any trade deal and will therefore take what he’s given. Their big priorities will be that the UK signs up to a level-playing field (so no undercutting on state aid) and fishing rights.

On the British side a great deal has been invested in the idea that in the most recent stage of negotiations, it was the clock ticking down to a no-deal Brexit that unlocked Boris Johnson’s retooled withdrawal agreement. But the reality is that Johnson did actually show a greater deal of pragmatism on the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland than his predecessor, Theresa May, was ever willing to do. His major success was that he was able to spin that as a triumph not as a retreat. 

Can he do it again? While he only needs 40 MPs to rebel to lose a vote, the area of a potential agreement is actually fairly large. The things that the British government and the most committed Brexiteers have made a lot of noise about – zero tariff access, the end of free movement, being outside the European Court of Justice – are fairly easy for the EU to offer, provided the UK is willing to swallow concessions on issues such as the level-playing field and agree to a low standard of market access to the EU. Boris Johnson certainly can secure a bare-bones agreement in a year, the question is whether his decision to do so would look and feel so smart by 2024

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