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Why Boris Johnson is opting for a semi-Brexit

Boris Johnson in front of a 'get Brexit done' screen. - Credit: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

Former Europe minister DENIS MACSHANE suggests the Brexit bluster is fading as the final deadline looms and predicts a feeble deal similar to the one offered to Theresa May

The Brexit signals emerging from both London and Brussels are now pointing clearly to a deal largely on the terms that Michel Barnier, the EU negotiator, offered to Theresa May in 2017.

Such a deal is based on the UK trading goods in and out of Europe without tariffs and quotas. It is a simple free trade deal and does not cover services like those sold by the City, lawyers, management consultants, architects or the creative sector.


This is best called a semi-Brexit. After all, the condition for obtaining it is that the UK follows EU rules covering trade – something which Brexit purists always rejected.

The reason for this turn of events is simple: the excitement and energy stemming from leaving the European Union, which had powered the Brexit referendum result followed by Boris Johnson entering Downing Street and winning a handsome majority 12 months ago, has faded.

Pick your calamity: Fight COVID-19 or the EU

The UK government simply cannot fight a two-front campaign on both Brexit and on Covid-19.

All the more so as it is a battle against a virus that just keeps resurfacing no matter how much it is whacked at by different measures (like full or partial lockdowns, incompetent test and tracking procedures or earnest admonitions not to meet friends or family).

At a time of such real troubles, it is simply futile trying to stand up against 27 EU sovereign governments which are remarkably united.

Time and again, they have politely — but firmly — expressed their confidence in Barnier, no matter how often the UK government tried to opt for splitting manoeuvres.

Heroism vs. realism

Even the vaccination excitement of declaring VE Day as if troops had entered Berlin in 1945 has quickly faded.

The UK’s National Audit Office (NAO) reports the UK will be doing well if just half the population is vaccinated even by the end of 2021.

A listless Tory Party

The prime minister and his ministers appear listless with no zip and music in their voices. Johnson has also had to U-turn on his election flagship promise of a major new house-building program.

Anyone who knows the fury that planning proposals cause – especially in the wealthier shires of the nation – would have advised him to go very gently before taking on the “Nimby” monster that rises up and terrifies MPs who want to keep their votes.

Still no understanding of EU mechanisms

Last Wednesday, Johnson came back from an unhappy Brussels dinner with Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, and Barnier.

The headlines the next day all proclaimed “NO DEAL” and Downing Street went on to attack president Macron and chancellor Merkel for not talking to the prime minister.

The UK had been an EU member for close to half a century, but, evidently, the British prime minister still does not appear to understand that, in trade talks, EU heads of government never get involved and leave all negotiations to EU trade officials like Barnier and his team.

Naval battles anyone?

Then Johnson announced the Royal Navy would be mobilised to board small French boats fishing for scallops and crayfish. The nation was agog at the idea of the once mighty Royal Navy sending its warships to crush boats of a NATO ally.

And yet, the more Johnson and No. 10 briefed against Brussels and EU leaders, the more a sense of panic could be felt in the UK business community.

TV and radio news programmes were filled with economic actors from all sectors – farming, fishing, automobile, the City, truckers, scientists – all issuing a joint and very loud cry of alarm at the idea of no deal.

Empty promises: “Easy to negotiate”

Remarkably, these protests no longer came from the camp of the old Remain campaigners, but from middle and money-making Britain.

Many of these people had voted “Leave” — but on the basis of promises in 2016 from Johnson and others that have now proven erroneous.

Realising that the UK cannot keep unfettered access to the single market and that UK citizens cannot retain travel and residence rights on the continent, they changed their personal and political calculus.

Contrary to the cocky pronouncements from the British government, none of the “sure-fire” promises about the future relationship between the UK and EU proved easy to negotiate. In fact, the EU 27 resolutely declared them non-negotiables.

When realism sets in

Suddenly late last week, realism about what deal was to be had with the EU finally settled in. Brexit enthusiasm died away.

More pressing issues were to be dealt with: serious Covid-19-related problems emerged, especially over the idea of relaxing social distancing rules as Johnson’s Christmas gift to the nation.

Amidst the Covid-19 crisis, Johnson was facing a 2021 opening up with massive 50km queues at UK-EU border ports, shortages of foods and medicines and key prices rocketing as WTO tariffs were applied.

The effect of Biden’s election on Brexit

As if the consequences of a hard Brexit weren’t bad enough, Johnson’s long-time strategy on Brexit would have resulted in a signal to the world — and especially to Joe Biden — that Britain was prepared to sacrifice its economy for an ideological fixation against Europe.

Johnson did not want to give this gift to the opposition Labour Party nor guarantee a big win for the pro-EU Scottish Nationalists in the election to the Scottish Parliament in May 2021.

This would open the Pandora’s box of Scotland leaving the UK in the closing years of the Queen’s reign and precipitate Britain’s biggest constitutional crisis in 300 years.

Johnson cutting his losses

So, he temporised and ordered UK negotiators to start making concessions. He withdrew a proposed law that would allow the UK to break any agreed deal.

He made clear the UK-controlled region of Northern Ireland would stay under EU law and rules for trade purposes. He agreed that the UK would abide by EU laws and rules on workers’ rights and the environment.

It was a major U-turn or pirouette as if Johnson was auditioning for a role in a political version of the Christmas Nutcracker ballet.

Tory MPs, themselves exhausted by Covid-19, so far are quiescent in front of Johnson’s capitulation to Barnier. Some anti-EU excitables will protest, but few MPs doubt that if Johnson brings home Barnier’s deal it will be voted through.

End of the Brexit all-brawn no-brains show

Thus ends five years of Brexit Sturm und Drang. The deal will have been done. But it does not cover vital areas of the relationship between Britain and the EU – from data processing, to security, to the rights of British citizens working or wanting to live on the continent.

These issues will continue to plague the British government and people all across Britain.


One important result, though, is in the box now: a Tory prime minister is admitting that he cannot break apart the EU and must lead a United Kingdom that lives henceforth as a junior offshore island abiding by the wishes of its bigger neighbour.

Brexit is over – but Brexiternity is just getting underway.

This piece was first published by The Globalist and can be viewed by clicking here.

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