On Friday morning, we will finally know what’s going on with Brexit. Sort of.
This election campaign has given Brits the opportunity to talk about things that are not Brexit. Important things, like how public services should be funded; how the UK’s healthcare system should work; how the country’s housing shortage should be solved.
After Thursday’s election, that daydream will be over. There will be a winner, and voters will once again demand answers to the single biggest question the nation faces. And the most likely outcome is that they will be in short supply.
Brexit has been oddly absent from this election. That might be because each party’s policy actually leads to more confusion. All have a clear topline for what happens if they win a parliamentary majority, but are quiet on how they will deliver it and what comes next.
This drift back towards the Brexit twilight zone hasn’t gone unnoticed in Brussels. “The debate around Brexit during this election has been about how you break the deadlock in Parliament, not about what the EU is or is not willing to offer the UK in the future,” says Georgina Wright, an EU expert at the Institute for Government think tank.
A win for Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party is the most likely outcome, though it’s far from certain if that means a majority in Parliament.
A Conservative majority would allow Johnson to pass his Brexit deal and take the UK out of the EU on January 31. Brexit will be done, but nowhere near over. The next stage will be agreeing on the future trading relationship with Europe before December 31, 2020 – the end of the so-called “transition period.”
Here’s where things get tricky. A slim Conservative majority means that Euroskeptic members of his own party will be able to hold Johnson hostage if they deem him to be bending to the will of Brussels.
However reckless that sounds, around this time last year, former Prime Minister Theresa May faced a vote of no confidence in that same party for trying to pass a Brexit deal very similar to Johnson’s.
While Johnson has managed to calm his rowdy lawmakers, for now, the future relationship with Europe is something that could stick forever.
Europe is unlikely to rub out its very clear red lines: something many of Johnson’s Conservatives seem oblivious to.
“It’s remarkable how myopic the debate has been. Zero discussion of the trade-offs and binary choices that follow in the immediate weeks after a Johnson majority,” a senior EU advisor told CNN.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, wants to renegotiate a new Brexit deal that ties the UK closer to the EU through membership of a customs union. Ignoring the fact Labour’s path to power is narrow, the assumption that Europe is going to make life easier for Corbyn is based more on hope than fact. “Even the Labour position of wanting a customs union doesn’t consider what sort of customs union the EU is prepared to offer,” says Wright.
In the uncertain event that Corbyn gets a deal, he would then give the public a vote: his deal or remain in the EU. This would be the case even if Corbyn doesn’t win a majority and were to govern as a minority. There are plenty of remain voices who might help Corbyn pass legislation for a second referendum in Parliament.
However, those pro-European remain parties should not assume that a second referendum is the preferred outcome in Brussels. “The second referendum debate is an insular UK question. From the EU’s perspective, it’s just not just the UK that is suffering from Brexit fatigue,” explains Wright.
Talk to officials outside of Westminster and the frustration is obvious. “What we want is visibility on where we are going – if the public wants another referendum, then so be it. We don’t wish for one scenario or another, just clarity,” explains a European diplomatic source. By “clarity,” what the source means is not slipping back to a parliamentary deadlock “where it’s easy to say no but impossible to say yes.”
Leaving aside the months of uncertainty that a second referendum would cause – remember, remain might still lose again – it would also likely mean a mess in Parliament. Given that the cleanest path to a second referendum is a Corbyn minority government, there could still be no majority in Parliament for anything other than the second referendum. That means Corbyn could not guarantee that he could pass any legislation – including his brand new Brexit deal.
Talking of pro-remain parties, their policies are equally mired in confusion. While no one really thinks the Liberal Democrats or Scottish Nationalist Party will get anywhere near government, both are in favor of stopping Brexit and, should a second referendum happen, would campaign for remain.
That can only be done by revoking Article 50, the formal process for leaving the EU. While it’s possible that a member state can do so unilaterally, the UK would have to clear several hurdles laid down by the European Court of Justice, including – you’ve guessed it – having a majority in Parliament for doing so.
The road to remain is extremely complicated. It would involve domestic political parties that don’t like or trust one another striking deals that could easily fall apart before we even get to a referendum. And it involves asking a frustrated Brussels for more time.
“The EU would probably prefer that the UK remained a member state,” says Wright, but its members are concerned at what that could do to the unity of the bloc. “Do you really want a country so divided on its EU membership inside the club at a time when the EU is thinking about its own future?”
This isn’t to say that the Conservative position put forward by Johnson is any less likely to cause havoc. He might “get Brexit done,” but in doing so, he starts the countdown to the next Brexit deadline: the end of 2020. If he’s unable to secure a trade deal with Europe in that time, he’s got to choose one of two unfavorable outcomes.
First, crashing out of the transition period with no trade deal in place, meaning that the controversial Northern Ireland protocol should kick in, designed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland.
The word “should” is doing a lot of heavy lifting here. “We’ve got an agreement in place, the question is whether we can actually implement that agreement,” says Anand Menon, director of the UK in a Changing Europe think tank. So, even though there’s an agreement in place, it might not be possible to implement it, which means more chaos.
“One of the most bizarre things that’s happened in Brexit to date is the EU tolerating any uncertainty at one of its own external borders,” says Menon.
One explanation for this is that the EU thinks Johnson will take the second option: extending the transition period. Faced with the prospect of no deal back in October, Johnson softened his tone on Brexit and his hostility to the EU. It got him a deal and an extension to the deadline, avoiding a catastrophic no-deal crash out.
Johnson got away with extending his last Brexit deadline, despite saying he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than do so. But if he does so again, he could find that the goodwill from his own party and from Brussels would wear thin.
Four years on from the Brexit vote, the crisis will rumble on for god knows how long. There’s a very good chance that this election will solve absolutely nothing.