How Britain could still face a cliff-edge Brexit

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - “Get Brexit Done”, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s election campaign catchphrase that promises a clean departure from the European Union, is much easier said than done.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during the launch of the Welsh Conservatives' manifesto in Wrexham, Britain, November 25, 2019. REUTERS/Phil Noble

Even if Johnson wins next month’s election and takes Britain out of the bloc on Jan. 31, his government and the other 27 member states of the EU will have an 11-month transition period to negotiate a future relationship.

If they fail to hammer out a new trade deal by the end of 2020, which experts say is likely, and they fail to agree to extend the transition period for more negotiations, Britain will effectively be facing a disorderly no-deal Brexit again.

The following explains how that could unfold.


If Johnson secures a parliamentary majority in Britain’s Dec. 12 vote, as opinion polls currently suggest he will, he will move quickly to put the Withdrawal Agreement reached with the EU27 last month through a more compliant parliament.

Jill Rutter, an expert at UK in a Changing Europe think-tank, said that getting the bill through before the end of December looks impossible but it could be fast-tracked to ensure a formal exit from the EU by the deadline of Jan. 31.


If that were to succeed, after Jan. 31 Britain will enter a transition period during which it will negotiate a new long-term relationship with the EU27.

This could run until the end of December 2022 under the current rules, but in its election manifesto released on Sunday, Johnson’s Conservative Party set a hard deadline of the end of 2020.

Johnson’s government and some EU officials have said it would not be difficult for Britain to reach a trade agreement in 11 months because they have common regulatory starting points.

“We already start from a position where the EU and the UK is aligned, we are agreed on all the key principles,” Britain’s finance minister, Sajid Javid said on Sunday.


However, a senior EU diplomat said that only in his “wildest dreams” could he envisage settlement of a future relationship by the end of next year.

The deadline is unrealistic, not least because conventional free trade agreement negotiations tend to take place over years, with regular breaks between negotiating rounds, said Joe Owen of the Institute for Government.

But even if they aimed for what officials in Brussels have described as a “bare bones” free trade agreement, the two sides would run into disagreement on “level playing”, or fair competitions provisions on labour, environment, state aid and other standards.

The EU would insist on these to protect its single market from dumping prices or other types of unfair competition from Britain, a big economy and an immediate neighbour.

“If Johnson...wants any chance of getting a deal on future relations negotiated by the end of 2020, then he would need to make some big concessions,” Owen said. “Tariff and quota free trade will come at a price – following EU rules and, most likely, a continued role for the European Court of Justice.”


If London and Brussels did manage to reach agreement on deal on future relations by the end of next December, there would be many procedural hurdles to clear.

It would require approval in the European Council of member states, and ratification by the European Parliament, national parliaments and subnational parliaments such as Belgium’s three regional assemblies, which could potentially veto it.

Owen said the process could take years and will cast a shadow over the talks.

“A deal has to be agreed and ratified by December 2020 or the UK will be facing its next no-deal cliff edge – the point at which arrangements covering everything except for the Irish border, citizens’ rights and the UK’s financial settlement will simply fall away,” he said.


Johnson would not have long after the future relationship talks get under way to avoid the cliff edge. If he wants an extension by one or two years the transition period beyond the end of next December, he must request it by June 30, 2020.

“No extension risks leaving either with no deal, or a minimalist deal which looks quite like no deal. At the moment that seems to be where the government is heading,” said Rutter.