On Friday, January 24 Boris Johnson formally signed the Withdrawal Agreement that allows the UK to leave the European Union.
The sheaf of gilt-edged papers sped to London via train, a reminder of one permanent link to Europe that won’t be severed after Brexit. But aside from the pale concrete monolith of the Channel Tunnel, its gaping mouth symbolic of the black hole left by Britain’s wrenching departure, what other connections to the continent will remain?
The rhetoric in Brussels has been hopeful over the past weeks, with European Council president Charles Michel declaring: “We start a new chapter as partners and allies.” This new chapter of the story, though, is still nothing more than a blank page for the moment– and tensions exist over whether the second stage of negotiations can succeed.
Despite the fireworks and celebrations, on 31st January the UK will enter an eleven-month transition period during which the government must follow EU regulations on trade and accept the decisions of the European Court of Justice.
This gives almost a year for fresh talks between the UK and the EU to work out the details of the future relationship- and Boris Johnson has claimed that this deadline of December 2020 will not be extended.
In that month, there would be three options on the table. The most optimistic vision would involve a UK-EU trade deal being signed and sealed for the long-term, although this would not cover issues such as security.
The second scenario would see negotiations over the future relationship stall, and if this happened Britain could default to World Trade Organisation rules, with punitive tariffs placed on continental imports. Those conditions would essentially mean that Britain left the European Union with ‘no-deal’.
The final option would be to extend the transition period to allow for further negotiations, but since Boris Johnson has ruled this out it appears unlikely. The basic situation continues to focus on a stark and confrontational choice- deal or no deal.
With the additional time pressure, coupled with the memory of Theresa May’s failure to keep to previous Brexit deadlines in March, serious tensions begin to rise over the government’s ability to fully finalise the arrangements. That fear won’t be calmed by the EU’s public suspicions of the December timetable. For all the gravitas placed on the exact minute of Britain’s departure, its clear that Brexit remains far from over.