Brexit After the Election: For the UK, the Political Risk Is Only Beginning

By: Ryan Bridges

The United Kingdom went to the polls Thursday and voted again for Brexit. The Conservative Party won 364 of 650 seats in parliament, giving it a strong majority to advance the EU withdrawal agreement negotiated by its leader and Prime Minister Boris Johnson and leave the European bloc at the end of January 2020. Passage of the agreement in theory resolves one of the most critical issues, the status of the Irish border, which significantly reduces the political risk for the EU side of Britain’s departure.

But for the United Kingdom, the political risk is only beginning.

The start of formal trade negotiations will draw farming and business lobby groups deeper into the negotiation and force both sides into difficult compromises. Moreover, any trade deal will require the approval of the European Parliament as well as the parliaments of constituent member states, subjecting to it political scrutiny that it has generally yet to experience.

Hopelessly optimistic pledges aside, the chances of resolution on the future relationship by the end of 2020 are slim. A deal would require significant concessions by one or both sides in a very short time frame, while no deal would greatly increase the risk of the breakup of the United Kingdom.

Much more important than what is happening between London and Brussels will be how London manages its relationship with the governments of Scotland, Northern Ireland and, to a far lesser extent, Wales. The pro-Scottish independence Scottish National Party (SNP) secured 45 percent of the vote in Scotland, a gain of more than 8 percentage points over the 2017 election and good enough for 48 of 59 seats in the regional parliament.

The SNP campaigned on holding another independence referendum – which would be the second since 2014 – and party leader Nicola Sturgeon was quick to declare that the results gave her a mandate to follow through on that pledge. Meanwhile, Johnson – whose party lost more than half its seats in Scotland, falling to six seats from 13 – vowed during the campaign not to permit another Scottish independence referendum. Technically, the SNP needs the consent of the government via a Section 30 order to hold another referendum, though some constitutional experts believe there may be leeway.

Regardless, were Downing Street to refuse, it would likely strengthen the Scottish independence movement and create even more problems down the line. Opinion polls still show a roughly even split on Scottish independence. The three most recent surveys – conducted by YouGov, Panelbase and Survation, all in December – find the anti-independence side ahead by 10, 6 or 1 percentage points, respectively.

The “No” side won the 2014 referendum by 10 percentage points, so these margins suggest a closer vote this time. A hard line by London could boost the Scottish nationalist cause, especially if combined with a hard Brexit; 62 percent of Scots voted to remain in the EU, and polls suggest that a harder Brexit increases support for independence.

At the same time, London might be facing unrest by unionists in Northern Ireland in the coming year. To secure the EU withdrawal agreement, Johnson agreed to apply customs checks on goods moving across the Irish Sea from Britain to Northern Ireland. This outraged unionists, for whom the agreement is tantamount to the forced economic reunification of Ireland, or at least the partitioning of Northern Ireland from Britain.

Unionist groups are already warning that they will blockade ports and take other unspecified measures to disrupt trade with the Irish Republic in the event that checks are instituted. Such checks would occur only if no trade deal were worked out at the end of the U.K.-EU transition period, which will terminate at the end of 2020 but as it stands can be extended until the end of 2022. At the same time, nationalist parties in Northern Ireland won more seats in Thursday’s election than did unionists, a first since Ireland’s partition in 1921. This prompted nationalist calls for a border poll on a united Ireland, though such an event is likely years away.

The Conservative Party’s election manifesto ruled out any extension, but given that the party has opposed every Brexit extension to date only to acquiesce at the last minute, there are doubts about its sincerity. And importantly, delay in this case would work to London’s advantage – not necessarily in the negotiations with Brussels, but in its dealings with Edinburgh and Belfast.

The SNP wants to hold a referendum quickly – Sturgeon has said she will seek approval for a vote before Christmas – but the case for independence may be weakened if the vote is held while negotiations are ongoing, an extension has been secured (a request for extension must be made by the end of June) and a softer Brexit looks possible.

The SNP’s best chance for independence may be to wage a protracted battle over the legality of another referendum or otherwise drag its feet while hoping that the Johnson government agrees to either the hardest possible Brexit deal or no deal at all – though in that case it runs the risk of a soft Brexit that deprives it of its momentum. Similarly, delay means no customs checks in the Irish Sea, which for England puts off the problem of unionist unrest in Northern Ireland.

All signs suggest that the U.K. and EU will need all the time they can get for the next phase of the negotiation. Both sides obviously want a trade agreement, but after the way the withdrawal agreement talks went, Brussels believes Johnson is a pragmatist who can get away with making concessions that other politicians can’t. Brussels will also need to proceed cautiously to better account for the wishes of individual member states in the next phase, since any deal will require national approval. And the EU is fully aware of the Scottish situation, which it can use to its advantage so long as Scotland’s status is unresolved.

The British government needs a favorable trade agreement with its largest trade partner, but more than that it needs to keep its own union together – especially when it comes to Scotland, which is larger, wealthier and more populous than Northern Ireland and, importantly, shares an island with England. For at least the next year, the phase of Brexit that ostensibly covers the trade relationship between the U.K. and EU will hardly be about trade.

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