15 November 2019

The UK’s general election campaign is yet to get into full swing. A few more details have emerged regarding the Brexit policies of the major parties but the most significant developments are how the parties are organising themselves into pro- and anti- Brexit alliances. Ultimately, it is the effectiveness of these alliances and electoral coalitions that could decide the result.

The Conservatives have said they would leave the EU under Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s newly negotiated deal, which Open Europe has examined here. The ambition is to deliver a UK-EU Free Trade Agreement (FTA), and the Prime Minister has firmly ruled out extending the transition period, as provided for in the revised Withdrawal Agreement, beyond the end of 2020.

As incoming European Trade Commissioner Paul Hogan notes, “We’re not starting from zero so therefore I believe we can do – with a bit of good will on both sides – we can do an agreement more quickly than we would do with any other negotiations around the world which would take three or four years.” Nevertheless, the timetable is likely to be challenging but ruling out the extension may have helped sway Nigel Farage’s decision that the Brexit Party will not run in the 317 constituencies the Conservatives won at the 2017 election.

Johnson’s aspirations for the content of an FTA with the EU remain vague. He has described it both as a “straightforward free trade agreement not based on any kind of political alignment” and “on the model of a super Canada plus arrangement.” It is as yet unclear what “super” and “plus” might mean and Johnson’s references to “political alignment” might rule out regulatory alignment, which a more comprehensive trade agreement would require in certain sectors, or refer to the shape of future institutional cooperation between the UK and the EU, such as the role of the EU Court.

Meanwhile, Labour has said it would renegotiate a Brexit deal within three months of forming a government, which it would put to a referendum against Remain within six months. The party has not decided which option it would campaign for in a referendum, deferring the decision until after the deal has been negotiated. It has also said it’s deal option would involve a customs union with the EU and “close” single market alignment, however, there is an ongoing dispute over whether a Labour Brexit deal would retain freedom of movement or not.

Separately, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party have made clear their commitment to stopping Brexit and have said they would back revoking Article 50, or in a more likely scenario, would demand a second referendum. Given the disparate views of any second referendum coalition it is unclear whether the public will be offered any clarity on what the question posed in another referendum might be. Or, indeed, whether, if it required SNP support, a second EU referendum would be contingent on a second Scottish independence referendum. Corbyn has said an independence referendum would not be a priority in the “early years” of a Labour administration but has not ruled it out.

Elsewhere, the DUP, which opposed Johnson’s Brexit deal, could yet come back in to play if the parliamentary arithmetic is again tight.

In what could be a close contest, increasing attention is being paid to the various formal and informal electoral pacts in various seats. The Brexit Party currently plans to field candidates in every Labour-held seat, but Farage is likely to come under increasing pressure to withdraw candidates in Tory-Labour marginals.

On the other side of the Brexit divide, the Lib Dems have established a so-called Remain Alliance with Plaid Cymru and the Green party for dozens of seats in England and Wales, but are also facing a backlash from some members for insisting on standing candidates against other Remain MPs. The Lib Dems’ decision to form a pact with Welsh nationalism but rule out a similar deal with the SNP illustrates that Brexit trumps all other issues for them in this election, including consistency on the Union.

News in brief

1. Prime Minister says there will be no check on goods from NI to GB
Asked today about whether his revised Withdrawal Agreement would cause additional burdens for Northern Irish businesses trading with Great Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, “This is a matter for the UK government and we will make sure that businesses face no extra costs and no checks for stuff being exported from NI to GB.” He declined to comment regarding on trade going from GB to NI.

2. EU initiates complaints process against UK for not nominating new Commissioner
The European Commission yesterday started infringement proceedings against the UK over its decision not to nominate a new EU Commissioner. The UK’s Ambassador to the EU, Tim Barrow, wrote to the Commission on Wednesday explaining that the UK would not nominate a new candidate before it had concluded its 12 December general election. However, the Commission has insisted the UK’s decision is in breach of EU law.

Meanwhile, MEPs have again rejected Hungary’s Commission-nominee, Oliver Varhelyi, who will have to answer further written questions before his nomination is approved. Both the French and Romanian candidates have now been approved for their respective commission roles.

3. Trade partners seek improved access from UK and EU over Brexit-related losses
Fifteen countries, including the US and Australia, have reportedly raised concerns over commercial losses due to Brexit at today’s World Trade Organisation goods council. The countries urged the UK and the EU to offer improved market access to compensate them for the trade disruption experienced by Brexit.

Open Europe in the media

Open Europe’s Acting Director, Stephen Booth, argues “An independent UK must decide swiftly on its preferred place in the world,” in an article for ConservativeHome.

Pieter Cleppe argues “Draghi’s last months as President of the European Central Bank have been tumultuous,” in an article for German Die Achse des Guten. He also commented on the Spanish election result on China’s CGTN TV and French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to China on French-German broadcaster ARTE TV.

Anthony Egan wrote a piece for the Article on how the UK must do more to showcase its pro-immigration credentials.