Blog: ‘Get Brexit done’: Johnson’s election win won’t allow the EU to move on from Brexit

Boris Johnson’s victory in the United Kingdom General Election has been welcomed in the European Union for the ‘clarity’ it is said to bring to the question of Brexit. However, the only certainty at this point is that, from early this year, the UK will no longer be represented in EU institutions. As Ferdi De Ville and Gabriel Siles-Brügge argue, the wider impact of Brexit for the EU is contingent on the future partnership, the dynamic response of societal and political actors and the discursive struggle over the lessons that the EU should learn from Brexit.  

‘Get Brexit done’. The promise credited by many to have swung the 2019 UK elections for the Conservatives points to the Brexit fatigue experienced in parts of the UK electorate. EU officials were also said to be relieved at the ‘clarity’ of the election result. The changes agreed with the pre-election Boris Johnson administration to the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration similarly betrayed a desire to move the EU policy agenda onto other matters. Not without a certain symbolism, the EU’s flagship Green New Deal was presented the day before the UK General Election.


But Brexit, as numerous academics and commentators have highlighted, is here to stay, not least because Britain’s exit this year marks the starting gun for the second phase of talks on the future relationship. And while there may be a hope amongst EU policymakers that negotiating the future economic partnership will now be easier and that the period of ‘gridlock’ is over, the parallels to phase 1 of the Brexit talks are so far racking up.

© Copyright Stephen Craven and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The Johnson administration promises a new cliff edge at the end of December 2020 by refusing to countenance an extension to the transition period – going as far as to enshrine a provision in the Withdrawal Agreement Bill to prevent an extension. The European Commission is already contemplating a new ‘sequencing’ of negotiations – focusing talks this year on issues for which the EU cannot take unilateral mitigating action. And – as summarised in Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s remark that the EU would be pushing for ‘zero tariffs, zero quotas, zero dumping’ – the EU’s insistence on ‘level playing field’ provisions as the price for market access remains. These provisions were first found in the now-abandoned all-UK customs union backstop.

The direction of travel, notably the changes ‘won’ by Johnson to the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration and the stated intention to negotiate a ‘comprehensive’ Free Trade Agreement without regulatory alignment, suggests a looser economic relationship. But nothing is yet set in stone. Johnson’s majority might still allow him to ignore Eurosceptic backbenchers and push for a closer economic relationshipAn extension by any other name is another possibility. The UK might be exiting the EU and its governance structures in early 2020, but Brexit is still to play for.

All of this suggests that Brexit – the broader process, rather than the narrower question of the UK’s exit from the bloc – will likely continue to be part of the EU policy landscape for some time. The European Union might be eager to turn the page on Brexit to focus on other pressing issues like its multiannual budget, implementing the Green New Deal or completing the reform of the monetary union. But the on-going Brexit process will keep on leaving its imprint on these other policies.

This blog post is intended as the first in a series reflecting on the contributions to a Special Issue on ‘The Impact of Brexit on EU policies’ as we move into phase 2 of the negotiations. As we argue in the Introduction to this Special Issue, compared to the wealth of studies of Brexit’s impact on the UK, relatively little scholarly work has been produced regarding its impact on the EU. Where academics have considered such impacts, the tendency has been to focus either on (grand) integration theory or on the ‘static’ effects of removing the UK from the EU policy machinery.

The first group has conceived of Brexit either in terms of a broad ‘disintegrative dynamic’ undermining the Union or – less dramatically – as an instance of ‘differentiated (dis)integration’. Meanwhile, a second group homing in on more specific policy impacts has tended to take ‘the behaviour and impact of the UK’s more than forty years of membership of the EU as proxy for what will happen when taking it out of the EU “equation”’. This echoes the common-sense view in much of the commentariat that removing the liberal UK will push the EU in a more social or protectionist direction.

The contributors to the Special Issue offer a more nuanced and/or detailed reflection on Brexit’s potential impacts on specific policy areas – including articles focused on EU trade policythe Single Market, the European Social Dimension, the Common Agricultural PolicyEU Climate Change Governancegender in EU Foreign and Security PolicyEU Development Policy, and the EU’s Post-Brexit Global Role. How exactly Brexit will affect EU policies depends on the contours of the future partnership, the responses of societal and political actors, and the way that a post-UK future for the EU is imagined.

Several authors suggest that on-going uncertainty will lead EU actors to dynamically adjust their preferences and strategies in ways that cannot simply be extrapolated from their past behaviour. For example, other liberal Member States have already formed a grouping intended to counterbalance the absence of the UK, the so-called ‘New Hanseatic League’. When and if (previously) UK-based businesses decide to relocate to the EU27, this is likely to affect the balance of societal interests. Another factor is how Brexit is framed in the EU. Some like French President Macron have depicted Brexit as a call for a more integrated EU that is able to ‘respond to its people’s need for protection’. Others, like the previous EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, have argued that in response to Brexit (and Trumpian trade wars), the EU needs to, more than ever, become the world’s champion of free trade.

Not unlike the outcome of the future EU-UK relationship itself, how these debates will develop is still open. Our Special Issue examines under which conditions certain outcomes are more plausible. In the upcoming blog entries of this series, contributors will build on their articles to explore how the Johnson victory and the first weeks of the new European Commission might shape how these different scenarios play out.

This post represents the views of the authors and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. 


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