Brexit: between economy and geopolitics

The transition period that will have to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union is almost over. The path began several years ago with the 2016 referendum. Since then, the British and the European governments have changed several times. The first stalemate seemed to have been overcome when the European Commission and the Johnson government signed the Withdrawal Agreement. This last provided for a transition period through all of 2020 in which the main unresolved issues had to be settled. However, this was not the case. Surely the pandemic that broke out in the early months of the year delayed the proceedings. A great deal of responsibility has fallen to the Johnson government because of the emergency it must address. In a time of severe economic recession, it becomes complicated to justify any watered-down compromise to its citizens, and perhaps this is the reason why Johnson has decided to force the issue over the past few weeks.

In the various rounds of talks that have taken place in recent months, the EU and the British delegations have struggled to clarify some crucial points of the agreement, especially those concerning the level playing field and fishing rights. The level playing field is certainly the most difficult obstacle to overcome when defining trade relations. Banally, it is a matter of "playing by the rules". Brussels wants London to comply with European standards in terms of workers' rights, environmental protection and state aid. Indeed, the EU fears that the UK may well distort competition and cripple European companies. Obviously, this is not easily acceptable for the British government, especially after that the campaign in favour of Brexit had promised the recovery of Britain's economic sovereignty. London would like to be able to achieve a free trade agreement similar to those signed by Brussels with Canada and Japan. However, this seems unlikely due to the geographical proximity and the high degree of interdependence between the two systems.

It is therefore in this climate of uncertainty that Boris Johnson has signed the Internal Market Bill. It is essentially a national internal market law that would allow the British government to override certain commitments made in the Withdrawal Agreement. Immediately many opponents claimed that this would be an explicit violation of international law and, indeed, it would seem to be the case. To decide unilaterally not to respect certain clauses certainly goes against the customary rule of pacta sunt servanda, one of the key principles of international law. Brussels' harsh response was immediate, and this may further hamper the negotiations. Moreover, Boris Johnson also had to deal with internal problems. After the first round of voting, the Internal Market Bill passed with 340 yes against 263 no, but the Conservative Party did not come out compactly. Several Tory exponents opposed the law wanted by Boris Johnson and former minister Bob Neill has since announced that an amendment will be presented to delete those parts that violate international law.

BoJo's move is difficult to interpret. On the one hand it can be seen as a planned gamble. At a time when it seemed difficult to overcome the above-mentioned difficulties, the Prime Minister tries to force his hand to get concessions. This is a negotiating tactic that has been used repeatedly in international agreements. Perhaps Brussels is willing to concede something in order to avoid a no deal. On the other hand, however, it may also be an extreme attempt to revive the credibility of a Prime Minister which has been severely damaged by the pandemic emergency, the economic crisis and the fact that he has not yet succeeded in "Get Brexit Done". However, the issue may take on a deeper geopolitical value if considering the impact of the Internal Market Bill on the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The border between the two Irelands was one of the most delicate issue related to Brexit. The famous backstop clause, required by Theresa May's government, was intended to avoid the reappearance of a physical border in a territory which had been crossed by tensions and violence for years. In the same Withdrawal Agreement, the importance of the Northern Ireland Protocol was reaffirmed. Basically, it is a matter of keeping Northern Ireland anchored to the European single market, redefine the economic "border" and place it in the sea, between the British Isles. In this way, an attempt was made to preserve the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which had settled the Irish question. The law proposed by the Johnson government, however, gives London the possibility to break the commitments made to Northern Ireland, thus risking to create a physical border between the two Irelands. All this, however, has a profound geopolitical significance. As Dario Fabbri well remembers on Limes [1], Brexit was not a purely economic move and it was not dictated by contingencies such as immigration. Basically, the reason for this move was to relaunch British sovereignty over Belfast and Edinburgh. The Protocol goes in the opposite direction: leaving Northern Ireland anchored to the European market risks breaking the unity of the United Kingdom, that is already challenged by Scotland. Scotland had voted by a large majority to remain in the European Union and the will to hold a referendum for independence was repeatedly perceived. If the Northern Ireland question is not resolved, it is possible that in the future Edinburgh will make some special demands as well.

The United States have further complicated the situation for the Johnson government. The speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, has made it clear that she is against the creation of any physical border between the two Irelands and violations of international law. London is going through a delicate moment because it must negotiate a trade agreement with Washington, and the Democrats control the House. Pelosi explicitly warned that she is ready to prevent the future treaty from passing the Congress if the clauses on the Northern Ireland's border are not respected.

The issue is very delicate. Johnson's move could lead him to sign a timely agreement with the European Union, but it could also isolate him internationally. At a time when the country is going through a severe crisis, the Premier is on a difficult and dangerous path. To risk compromising relations with Washington, for example in the case of a Biden victory, would make London's life very complicated.

Written by Leonardo Chierici.

Translated by Simona Maria Vallefuoco.

Original article: published on 19 September 2020.

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  • L'Autore

    Leonardo Cherici

    Leonardo Cherici si è laureato in Filosofia Politica all’Università di Padova con una tesi sul processo di integrazione europeo e sulle teorie politiche che lo hanno ispirato. Si è poi iscritto ad una Laurea Magistrale in Relazioni Internazionali presso l’Università Cattolica di Milano, discutendo una tesi di economia politica nella quale si analizza il recente fenomeno di aumento della diseguaglianza economica e la sua relazione con l’innovazione tecnologica e la globalizzazione.

    All’interno di Mondo Internazionale ricopre la carica di Vicedirettore di Redazione, coordinando il lavoro dei nostri autori. Fin dal 2019 scrive per l’Area Tematica Europa e per Framing the World

    Leonardo Cherici graduated in Political Philosophy from the University of Padua with a thesis on the European integration process and the political theories that inspired it. He then enrolled for a Master's Degree in International Relations at the Catholic University of Milan, discussing a thesis on political economy in which he analysed the recent phenomenon of increasing economic inequality and its relationship with technological innovation and globalisation.

    Within Mondo Internazionale he holds the position of Deputy Editor-in-Chief, coordinating the work of our authors. Since 2019 he has been writing for the Europe Thematic Area and Framing the World


From the World Europe Sections International Organizations


Brexit Geopolitica Economia Unione Europea

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