The Slatest

This Week in Brexit: Brexit Is Still Happening

Prime Minister Boris Johnson puts on a face mask and is seen against a background with stars.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Brian Lawless—WPA Pool/Getty Images

Few news stories scream “before times” quite as loudly as Brexit does. The agonizing negotiations over Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union consumed much of Britain’s, Europe’s, and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the world’s attention for much of 2016 through 2019, though today—in the midst of a pandemic with much of the world literally on fire—all the talk of Malthouse compromises and Canada Plus deals can feel like a distant memory. Here at Slate, we discontinued our regular This Week in Brexit roundup in December 2019, after Parliament finally passed Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s withdrawal bill. But Brexit was not done with us, not by a long shot. This week, talks are on the brinks of collapse, the British government may be breaking the law, and terrifying deadlines are looming. Ah, just like the good old days.

Here’s a special one-off edition of This Week in Brexit to get you back up to speed.

This week in weren’t we done with this? Technically, Brexit has happened, but only if you define “Brexit” very narrowly. To recap, Johnson called an election last December and won a landslide victory, allowing him to finally get the controversial withdrawal agreement he had negotiated with the EU approved by Parliament. Britain formally exited the EU on Jan. 31. But the agreement just specified the legal terms for the British withdrawal. Johnson’s government still has to negotiate a final trade deal with the EU, something that—even at the time—seemed like it was going to be more complicated than he was letting on. The U.K. is currently in a one-year transition period under which it is continuing to abide by EU rules. That period runs out at the end of this year, after which—if nothing has been agreed—the EU and the U.K. will revert to trading based on World Trade Organization rules, which could have damaging economic consequences for British companies that do business in Europe and consumers who rely on products from Europe. This is what is commonly called a “no-deal Brexit”—the bleak scenario that loomed over talks all last year.

Despite the risks, no-deal currently seems to be the most likely outcome, given the lack of progress in the seven rounds of trade talks that have been held so far. Johnson recently said he would walk away from the talks without a deal if one had not been reached by Oct. 15. Johnson has taken to calling this scenario an Australia-style trade deal, which sounds nice until you realize that Australia does not have a trade deal with the EU.

This week in stumbling blocks: Many factors stand in the way of a final trade deal. There’s an ongoing dispute over the amount of fishing British and European boats will be able to do in each other’s waters. There’s also the issue of “state aid”—assistance the government gives to businesses in the form of subsidies or tax breaks. The EU limits the amount of state aid governments can give companies in order to prevent unfair competition. The EU now says it doesn’t want to give the British access to European markets unless the U.K. respects European standards on state aid as well as those for worker protections and environmental regulations. That doesn’t sit well with Brexiteers, given that getting rid of European regulations was the whole point of this. There are also fears that this could mess with Johnson adviser and social distancing scofflaw Dominic Cummings’ plans to build a “British Google” to compete with Silicon Valley post-Brexit.

But if you followed Brexit at all last year, you will not be shocked to learn that the biggest stumbling block has been Northern Ireland. The Irish border, the U.K.’s only land border with the EU, was by far the toughest issue to resolve in the original Brexit talks. Nobody wants to have a hard border, which could threaten the region’s peace process, across the island of Ireland, but without a hard border, there’s no way to check goods crossing over for customs. You could also leave Northern Ireland in a customs union with the EU, but this would essentially create a new economic border down the middle of the Irish sea and divide the U.K. Theresa May’s solution was to keep the U.K. as a whole in a customs union with the EU, but hard-line Brexiteers didn’t consider that Brexit at all, and she failed multiple times to get her withdrawal bill through Parliament. Johnson’s solution was basically to fudge it. In his withdrawal agreement, Northern Ireland exited the customs union along with the rest of the U.K. but would continue to operate under EU rules. It wasn’t entirely clear at the time how this was going to work, and they still haven’t figured it out.

This week in breakin’ the law, but just a little bit: Last Sunday, the Financial Times reported that Johnson’s government was preparing new legislation that would override parts of the withdrawal agreement, in particular the very, very sensitive part about Northern Ireland. Under the legislation, there would be no need for export declarations for goods moving from Northern Ireland to the rest of Britain, and EU law would have no role in setting state aid policies for Northern Irish firms.

It’s not clear whether the bill can get through Parliament, but this is clearly a way to play hardball on outstanding issues involving Northern Ireland, and the EU is furious about it. Since the withdrawal agreement is now a formal international treaty, European leaders say that this bill is a violation of international law. During a debate in Parliament, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis conceded that it would break international law in a “very specific and limited way.” He might want to workshop that defense before using it in court. On Thursday, Johnson rejected an EU ultimatum demanding that the bill be withdrawn.

Both the U.K. and EU are accusing the other of undermining the Good Friday Agreement, the 1998 pact that ended most of the violence in Northern Ireland. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has also said that Congress would not approve a new trade deal with the U.K.—a major priority for Johnson—if the British government violates the withdrawal agreement or threatens peace in Northern Ireland.

This week in what to expect: The EU says it is stepping up its preparations for a no-deal Brexit, and at the moment, the two sides’ positions look irreconcilable. As a former British prime minister once said, “Brexit means Brexit.” In this case, that means that firm deadlines are often not actually that firm, ultimatums not that ultimate, and red lines more a faded pinkish color. It’s quite possible that Brussels and London will once again cobble together a compromise at the last minute, as they have so many times before. Or perhaps past experience has made them overconfident, and this time they really will blow through the deadline into the uncharted waters of a no-deal Brexit. The only thing we can be confident of is there’s going to be more drama.