British Prime Minister Boris Johnson cruised to victory in last Thursday’s general election, winning an increased majority in Parliament that will allow him to push for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union by the end of January. A Parliamentary vote is set to take place at the end of the week.
Johnson’s ruling Conservative Party gained 47 new Members of Parliament (MPs) and won an 80-seat majority after the main opposition Labour Party crumbled at the polls, which makes it more likely the PM can push ahead with his “Get Brexit Done” agenda with little chance of it being derailed by the other political parties—all of whom either want to remain within the European Union or oppose the current version of the EU-U.K. trade deal.
What does the Withdrawal Agreement say?
The key terms of the current version of the U.K.-EU Withdrawal Agreement (drawn up in October prior to the United Kingdom’s general election) are as follows:
1. The whole of the United Kingdom—including Northern Ireland—will leave the EU customs union.
2. The United Kingdom will be able to strike trade deals with other countries in the future.
3. The “backstop”—the controversial insurance policy designed to prevent a return to physical checks on the Irish border—has been scrapped in favor of a new customs border in the Irish Sea. Goods traveling onward to Ireland will have to pay a duty tax, whereas they will not in Northern Ireland.
4. There will be a transition period (currently lasting until December 2020 but liable to change) whereby all of the current rules stay the same while the United Kingdom and European Union continue to negotiate their future relationship. The transition period can be extended (depending on agreement between both parties), but only for a period of one or two years.
5. U.K. citizens in the European Union, and EU citizens in the United Kingdom, will retain their residency and social security rights after Brexit. Freedom of movement rules will also continue to apply during transition. Anyone who remains in the same EU country for five years will be allowed to apply for permanent residence.
6. The United Kingdom and European Union’s future relationship will be determined by a non-legally binding political declaration that says both sides will work toward a Free Trade Agreement (FTA). The text also contains a new paragraph on the so-called “level playing field” to “uphold the common high standards […] in the areas of state aid, competition, social and employment standards, environment, climate change, and relevant tax matters.”
The scale of his election victory—not seen since former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher won her third term in office in 1987—also means Johnson is no longer dependent on Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party to push through the U.K.-EU Withdrawal Bill (which was no longer a given since the latest version of the agreement puts the U.K.-Irish customs border somewhere in the middle of the Irish Sea, as opposed to the land border between the British North and the Republic of Ireland). He may still, however, need their support to ensure a smooth transition, as well as to preserve the Good Friday Peace Agreement.
In his victory statement on Dec. 13, Johnson said there was now “an overwhelming mandate to get Brexit done by 31 January” and acknowledged he wants to give the country “a break from wrangling, a break from politics, and a permanent break from talking about Brexit”—which he referred to as an “arid argument.” He also pressed for the country to “unite and level up” as the United Kingdom builds a “new partnership” with the European Union to “redouble its trading relationship.”
Johnson’s election victory has largely been greeted by European officials who are exhausted and frustrated by a 3 1/2-year exit process that has up until now created more confusion and animosity than certainty and calm.
On Twitter, the European Parliament’s Brexit Coordinator Guy Verhofstadt said: “Brexit will now happen. The British people have confirmed their referendum decision of 2016. The EU must now focus on building a new close, fair, and lasting partnership with Britain. It is in our common interest.”
Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar congratulated Johnson on “a formidable personal and political victory” and for aiming to push through with the Withdrawal Agreement that means an “orderly Brexit, no hard border, Common Travel Area, and reciprocal citizens’ rights protected.” He added the United Kingdom and European Union should aspire to negotiate a “New Trade Deal Plus” to further protect jobs and the two countries’ economies.
With a (probable) end to the Brexit negotiations in sight, cordial messages of support have also been sent by Europe’s heavyweight leaders Emmanuel Macron of France and Germany’s Angela Merkel.
And to reinforce the need for momentum to continue before the United Kingdom seeks a fourth extension, Charles Michel, president of the European Council, wrote: “We expect a vote on the Withdrawal Agreement as soon as possible. The EU is ready for the next phase. We will negotiate a future trade deal which ensures a true level playing field.”
The government has announced it plans to ask MPs to vote on the Brexit bill this Friday.
Brexit will now happen. The British people have confirmed their referendum decision of 2016. The EU must now focus on building a new close, fair and lasting partnership with Britain. It is in our common interest.— Guy Verhofstadt (@guyverhofstadt) December 13, 2019
Congratulations to @BorisJohnson on a formidable personal and political victory. Withdrawal Agreement means orderly #Brexit, no hard border, Common Travel Area and reciprocal citizens’ rights protected.— Leo Varadkar (@LeoVaradkar) December 13, 2019
I would like to congratulate @BorisJohnson on his victory.— Charles Michel (@eucopresident) December 13, 2019
We expect a vote on the withdrawal agreement as soon as possible. #EU is ready for the next phase. We will negotiate a future trade deal which ensures a true level playing field.
Business groups have broadly welcomed the election result. Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, the U.K.’s biggest business lobby group, said the government needs to rebuild business confidence and “early reassurance on Brexit will be vital.” She said while firms will continue to do all they can to prepare for Brexit, they “will want to know they won’t face another ‘no deal’ cliff-edge next year.” Fairbairn also called for the Prime Minister to pursue “pro-enterprise policies” on immigration—a point raised consistently by other business groups to ensure a flow of talent and skills.
Jonathan Geldart, director general of the Institute of Directors, urged the government for clarity regarding the terms of Brexit and the timetable to leave. He said “Get Brexit Done” will “only have meaning once the details of our long-term future relationship with the EU are clear. The Prime Minister must resist the urge for arbitrary negotiating deadlines and should commit to a proper adjustment period that starts when businesses know the full detail of what changes they may be facing.”
The Trades Union Congress—the U.K.’s umbrella body for labor organizations—was less enthusiastic, however, about the prospect of another five years of Johnson at the helm. In a statement, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady warned that “while the Prime Minister has won a clear majority, he can expect the shortest honeymoon ever.” He added: “There are no more excuses for Boris Johnson on Brexit. In the year to come, he must deliver a deal with the EU that protects jobs, rights at work, and peace in Northern Ireland.”