Was Thursday night’s commanding victory for Prime Minister Boris Johnson a sign that the majority of British voters do, after all, just want to “get Brexit done”? Well … not really.
As many Remainers are pointing out today, the main parties that want a second referendum on Brexit—Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, the Greens, and Plaid Cymru—collectively took almost 51 percent of the popular vote, compared with just under 46 percent for the Conservatives and the Brexit Party combined. The country is as divided as ever, with perhaps a slight edge for the Remainers.
But in the U.K.’s first-past-the-post system, the popular vote doesn’t matter: The election is 650 local contests and there was enough support for Brexit in traditional Labour seats in the North of England and the Midlands to deliver Johnson a landslide. Whether the people want it or not, Brexit is going to happen now.
Saying Brexit will be done however, is a bit of an overstatement. The prime minister has promised that when the U.K. formally exits the EU on Jan. 31, the country can move on to other priorities and “let the healing begin” after a brutal couple of years in politics. The pound surged on the election result—a sign that investors are finally glad to just know what’s going to happen. But there’s still a lot more Brexit to come.
Not much is going to actually change on Jan. 31. The U.K. will enter an 11-month “transition period” during which it will continue to abide by EU rules, though it will no longer have a say in setting them. During this period, it will negotiate a new post-Brexit trade deal with the EU. If there’s no deal by the end of that period, Britain will trade with the EU like any other member of the World Trade Organization: Yes, that’s right—there could still be a “no-deal Brexit.”
That prospect seems unlikely at this point, but the process probably won’t be as smooth as Johnson and his allies have promised. The prime minister wants to negotiate what has been awkwardly called “super Canada plus” agreement. This would be modeled on the 2016 Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA, which eliminates 98 percent of tariffs on goods traded between the EU and Canada. The model is attractive to Brexiteers because it’s a pure trade deal rather than a political alignment and would allow the U.K. to sign trade deals with other countries. (Donald Trump has already promised Johnson a “massive” one.)
But CETA also took the two sides seven years to negotiate, not 11 months. The whole thing was almost completely derailed in 2016 because of objections from Belgium’s French-speaking Wallonia region. The agreement is still only provisionally in place, as it has not been ratified by all 28—soon to be 27—EU members. Italy’s government has threatened to scupper the deal over what it sees as threats to the protected status of specialty Italian food products like Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and Prosciutto di Parma ham. Europe, as always, is gonna Europe.
And it’s worth keeping in mind, that the total amount of U.K.-EU trade is almost four times larger than Canada-EU trade.
The Tories have also mused about turning post-Brexit Britain into a low-tax, regulation-lite business hub, even using the phrase “Singapore-on-Thames.” But EU negotiators are likely to push back on subsidies, tax levels, and labor and environmental standards, in order to ensure a level playing field. (Former European Council President Donald Tusk has said the EU will insist on a “Canada plus plus plus” deal, whatever that means.) A host of other issues from fishing rights to intellectual property are likely to come up. The deal could provoke labor and environmental protests in the U.K. if it is seen as lowering British standards to below U.K. levels.
All this is to say, it’s going to be tricky. Johnson maintains it should be possible to get a deal in 11 months, arguing that he’s already defied critics by getting a withdrawal agreement signed much quicker than anyone expected. But EU officials have been skeptical about Johnson’s timetable. There’s a good chance Brexit talks will stretch on more than another year.
Add that to contentious issues like the future of Northern Ireland and the surging Scottish National Party’s calls for a new referendum, and it’s probably going to be a while before the healing can start.