Wednesday 11 December 2019

John Downing: 'Even if Johnson wins, he can only 'get Brexit done' with help from Hogan'

UK PM Boris Johnson on a campaign visit to a hospital in Worksop. Photo: Christopher Furlong / POOL / AFP
UK PM Boris Johnson on a campaign visit to a hospital in Worksop. Photo: Christopher Furlong / POOL / AFP
John Downing

John Downing

Let's start with the bad news and get it out of the way. Brexit is, alas, not dead - it is merely sleeping.

We are 18 days away from polling on December 12 in the most important UK election for Ireland since the crazy year of 1918. It's a noisy and complex campaign where Brexit may not be biggest issue - but it remains the busiest issue.

Outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson's "get Brexit done" mantra has resonance for weary English voters especially. In better news for Ireland, Irish European Commissioner Phil Hogan is soon to be the main EU man in the Brexit gap and has a different take on things.

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Face to face: EU Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Face to face: EU Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan. Photo: Fergal Phillips

Bidding for a Conservative Party win, Mr Johnson boasts that he can get the numbers to have the EU-UK divorce deal finally ratified in the London Parliament. That might well happen but we'll only know in three weeks' time.

But the second half of Mr Johnson's claim - that he can forge a new EU-UK trade relationship by the end of 2020 - most certainly will not happen.

When the newly minted UK PM landed on September 9 last for his first official visit to Dublin, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar gently but firmly spelt out the facts. Mr Varadkar said there was no such thing as a clean break and the story of Brexit would not end when the UK leaves the EU.

To fend off his own extreme Brexiteers, and the Brexit Party on his right flank, Mr Johnson is trying to insist a new post-Brexit EU-UK trade deal can be forged by the end of 2020. Thus, during this election campaign, Mr Johnson continues to insist he will not avail of scope to extend the so-called "transition period" until as late as the end of 2022 as provided for under the draft EU-UK divorce deal.

Brussels diplomats point to the long years it has taken to forge major trade deals with places like Japan and Canada - the latter deal actually took up to seven years. Even allowing for 45 years of UK membership of the EU, which has put in a lot of groundwork, the kindest estimate for a new EU-UK deal is under three years, taking us to the end of 2023, with more complex details being sorted in the ensuing years, moving us to talk of 2026.

The incoming trade commissioner, Mr Hogan, has acknowledged that the EU-UK trade relationship has a head-start. But he is still signalling a period of three to four years may be necessary.

It is hard to over-state the scale of the task as the UK is the world's fifth largest economy and EU-UK trade was worth a whopping €760bn in 2018. Ireland will hope these upcoming talks can land quota-free and tariff-free trade in goods and a preferential arrangement for trade in services comparable with EU deals done with Canada and Japan. But the key issue is back to familiar territory of "regulatory alignment", with the UK staying as close as possible to its existing regime of EU standards. The problem is once again a fundamental one - Brexit was about "more flexibility" and if the UK sticks closely to EU rules there will be questions again about why it bothered to begin with.

Then there is the always potentially lethal issue of fish. The veteran UK diplomat John Kerr liked to say that all EU negotiations open with high diplomacy and end in a dirty great row over fishing rights.

A big issue is going to be Irish vessels' access to UK waters. This will be traded toughly against UK fish processors' access to EU markets.

Ireland faces a potential loss of one-third of the value of Irish fishing vessels' catch which currently comes from UK waters. That accounts for 60pc of Irish mackerel and 40pc of prawns. We could go on, but you have the idea. Even assuming this UK election gives us a Brexit result, the process will only be starting.

It is reassuring that Mr Hogan is the man in the gap. He will be working for the entire EU but he has a unique understanding of Irish interests. And if Mr Johnson wants to "get Brexit done", then he must work with Mr Hogan.

Irish Independent

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