UK election: How Brexit issues will affect the campaign debate
Brexit battleground during election campaign will focus on three key areas
Anti- and pro-Brexit protesters outside the houses of parliament in London. Brits go the polls on December 12th in a general election. Photograph: EPA/Hollie Adams
Brexit is at the centre of the election debate. But as the campaign unfolds, the different aspects of the Brexit debate are going to get confused, as the parties make their pitches. Here are the three things they will be arguing about – and why they are important.
1. Withdrawal agreement
One election battleground will be about the withdrawal agreement recently agreed by Boris Johnson with the EU. Johnson says this is a “ great new deal” for the UK and that a Conservative majority would allow him to “get Brexit done” – quickly. The goal would be to have the agreement and the necessary legislation passed quickly and to leave by January 31st ,2020.
Jeremy Corbyn wants to renegotiate aspects of the deal, and the accompanying political declaration, which outlines goals for the future relationship between the two sides – and then put it to the people in a referendum. He will want to write in more safeguards for workers’ rights and standards, and declare an intention to stay in the EU customs union after Brexit. He has said that he believes that this can all be done within six months. Labour would only decide after a renegotiation with the EU whether to recommend voters should approve this approach in a referendum or vote to remain.
The Liberal Democrats might more likely play a role by demanding a referendum as the price of supporting a new government
Then there are the extremes. At one end is Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which wants the newly-negotiated withdrawal deal abandoned, saying it is “not Brexit”. At the other are the Liberal Democrats, who are campaigning on an unequivocal remain ticket and say they would revoke Article 50 if elected with a majority. As this is highly unlikely, they might more likely play a role by demanding a referendum as the price of supporting a new government.
The special arrangements for Northern Ireland, under which it will remain aligned to EU rules and partly in the EU customs union, are part of the withdrawal agreement. This will be a big issue in the North’s election, obviously, and will also feature in the wider debate.
2. Transition period
If the UK leaves with a withdrawal agreement, then it enters what is called the transition period – sometimes referred to in the UK as the implementation period. This is a kind of a standstill under which current trade arrangements remain in place, even though the UK has left the EU. This is to allow the two sides to negotiate their future relationship. Under the withdrawal agreement, the transition period is due to last until December 2020, though it could be extended by either one year or two.
It will probably be impossible to negotiate a full trade deal by the end of 2020. But, under pressure from the hard Brexit lobby, Johnson has said that the transition period will not be extended. If the transition period ends and no future trade deal is done, then we would face something similar to a no-deal Brexit, with tariff levels set by World Trade Organisation rules suddenly applying with other barriers and checks necessary. This would be hugely disruptive to trade between Britain and Ireland,
A decision is due to be made by June 30th on whether to extent the transition period after the end of next year, so time is really tight
As the new trade rules applying to Northern Ireland are in the original withdrawal agreement, they would come into force anyway. However, finalising these arrangements by the end of 2020 will be complicated and difficult too.
So if the withdrawal agreement is passed and the UK leaves on January 31st, the pressure will quickly start to clarify all this. The two sides might have to concentrate initially on a basic free trade agreement in goods – leaving more negotiations afterwards – but even here the timing would be very tight and the “do-ability” questionable. And a decision is due to be made by June 30th on whether to extent the transition period after the end of next year, so time is really tight.
A Corbyn victory and the resulting delay would certainly see the transition extended – assuming Corbyn succeeded in negotiating changes to the withdrawal deal and these were approved by a referendum.
3. The future relationship
The future relationship is the details of future trade and other arrangements between the EU and UK due to be negotiated after the UK leaves. Here the UK voters have a choice. The Conservatives want to leave the EU trading bloc, diverge in some respects from EU standards, and do new trade deals with third countries, including the US. Just how “hard” a Brexit Boris Johnson will campaign for bears watching in the campaign. The more he diverges from EU rules, the less generous the EU will be in the terms of a new trade deal with the UK.
The shape of Brexit will be a huge issue in the campaign, with Labour accusing the Conservatives of wanting to remove workers’ rights and protections
Corbyn’s Labour wants a much closer relationship with the EU, staying in the EU customs union and remaining aligned to single market rules in some areas. This would provide much fewer barriers in trade with the EU, but would give the UK less scope to do new trade deals with other countries. It could also be complicated to negotiate with the EU, depending how closely Labour say the UK remain aligned and where it wanted to diverge – for example on state aid rules.
The shape of Brexit will be a huge issue in the campaign, with Labour accusing the Conservatives of wanting to remove workers’ rights and protections and willing to cut food standards and endanger the NHS to do a new deal with the US.
The two extremes are framed by the Brexit Party, with its hard Brexit ambitions, and the Liberal Democrat’ pitch that the UK would be much better off if it remained in the EU.
For Ireland, the softer the Brexit, the less damage to our economy. If Johnson heads the next government, the key issue for Ireland, assuming he gets the withdrawal deal through, is the extent to which he sets the UK economy on a path of divergence. This would make life harder for trade with the UK and make the new arrangements for the North more economically difficult and politically fractious.
A Corbyn win would offer the hope of a softer Brexit, but also the uncertainty of re-opening the withdrawal deal. A hung parliament would lead to immediate questions about what happens on the January 31st deadline.