Boris Johnson heads to the polls with the ghost of Christmas future – the impossibility of achieving a comprehensive free trade agreement with the European Union in a year – looming over him, according to Sir Ivan Rogers.
In a lecture at Glasgow University on Monday night, the former head of the UK’s permanent representative to the European Union used the theme of Dicken’s Christmas Carol as his latest analogy for Brexit.
He said that the biggest crisis of the process still lies ahead – in late 2020 – when Johnson – if elected with a majority - will likely be forced to accept last minute concessions to avoid the UK having to trade with the EU on World Trade Organisation terms.
Johnson’s withdrawal agreement with the EU includes an implementation period to the end of December 2020, which is intended to allow the future trading relationship to be agreed. However, the prime minister has been warned that a full trade deal may not be reached in this time, though Johnson has pledged not to extend the transition time.
He said: “I am not saying – never have said – that no trade deal of any sort is possible next year.
“I am saying, as I was well over three years ago, that a serious, wide coverage, FTA cannot and will not get done in that time. And I know no one the other side of the Channel who thinks otherwise.”
Johnson’s pledge to get a deal done by the Withdrawal Agreement deadline of 31 December next year, meant the prime minister is now “boxed in”, Rogers said.
He said that “because we are under immense time pressure, and known to be desperate to ‘escape vassalage’ by the end of 2020 – something to which the prime minister daily keeps committing, and the Tory manifesto commits – the EU side just sees a huge open goal opportunity and repeats its playbook from the Article 50 process.
“After all, it thinks it worked really rather well. It’s rather hard to argue that tactically it didn’t…”
This could involve the EU running down the clock and confronting “a desperate UK prime minister with a binary choice between a highly asymmetrical thin deal on its terms, and no deal towards the end of next year”.
In this scenario, Rogers said, “you can safely assume he will make a lot of concessions in the endgame, and yet still have to emerge blinking into the light claiming victory”.
Rogers said he did not believe Johnson would seek to use the provision in the withdrawal agreement to request by 1 July 2020 an extension to the transition period.
He said Johnson “surely is most unlikely, just three months after the potential start of negotiations, already to have reached the conclusion by June that the following six months will not suffice.
“He also knows that the moment he extends, he will be straight into a new budgetary negotiation about the UK’s contribution over the one or two years of an extension. Which might involve eating lots of words.”
Rogers said that the EU would be likely to insist on a fisheries deal and a level playing field on regulations before agreeing to a deal.
But he warned that “the price of level playing field conditionality and a fisheries deal will be very steep, and both will very hard to swallow for the wing of the party that put him [Johnson] into the premiership”.
Even if the prime minister managed to sell this future relationship domestically, the UK would, Rogers said, be left with a “very thin” trade deal “with zero tariffs and quotas, but only with extensive ‘level playing field’ permanent conditionality”.
But Rogers also warned the EU that it risks “a hardball repetition next year of the tactics of the last couple of years, ending up with a deal which simply does not fly politically”.
He said this could alienate public opinion in the UK.
“Yet you consistently say you want to create the conditions in which the UK rethinks its long-term position and wants greater proximity to you.”
He advised the EU that it might be better for it to think “bigger and bolder about models of differentiation across the continent and reflect more deeply about where you want to end up with the UK – and others – on a 20-year, not 20-month perspective”.