Even before the text of the post-Brexit trade agreement was published, lawmakers loyal to Prime Minister Boris Johnson praised it for solving a problem that has convulsed British politics for almost half a decade.
When Parliament meets next week to ratify the document, the issue will only be the size of Johnson’s majority for an agreement that cuts close economic ties with continental Europe on January 1, after almost 50 years. Even the opposition Labor Party will officially support him, arguing that it is better than nothing.
However, this is unlikely to be the final word in the conservative bloodshed over Europe that, at least in part, led to the fall of the party’s last four prime ministers.
Brexit hardline advocates have yet to examine the deal and are unlikely to like every word of the tract’s nearly 2,000 pages of dense text and annexes. A small group did not want any commercial agreement, never really trusted Mr. Johnson and could still be inclined to cause problems for him.
An organization representing British trawler fleets has already expressed disappointment at the fishing rights concessions, and the Scottish government has attacked the agreement, arguing that it strengthens the case for Scotland’s independence.
“In the short term, the Conservative Party is very united around the very tough Brexit that Boris Johnson pushed Britain into, but that many Britons never thought they would vote for,” said Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform, a research institute.
But the deal offers only limited economic benefits for Britain, and friction with the European Union must remain, added Grant, who said the country’s post-Brexit relationship with the European Union may not be much more stable than that. previous.
“In the long run, the split could reopen,” he said, adding that the pressure could increase once the agreement’s limitations became clear.
The pandemic has plunged Britain into the worst recession in three centuries, so post-Brexit policy remains highly volatile, said Anand Menon, a professor of European politics at King’s College in London.
And the Brexit debate has poisoned the functioning of the Conservative Party, which has long been known for a pragmatic and successful search for power, rather than adhering to political doctrine.
Now, despite achieving his goal of “Brexit”, Johnson cannot assume that the divisions are over.
“Europe turned conservatives into an ideological party and basically hindered the conservative government,” said Menon.
Others have tried and failed to end this destructive rivalry, including David Cameron, Johnson’s predecessor, but one – and his rival from Britain’s most famous school, Eton College and Oxford University.
Cameron once asked his party to stop “making noise” about Europe. However, after being plagued by internal Eurosceptic critics, he made the fateful bet to call the 2016 referendum on EU membership in an ill-fated effort to put the issue at peace.
Johnson was a beneficiary of this miscalculation, and the lesson he seems to have learned from recent history is that it is dangerous for any Conservative Party leader to be flanked by the Eurosceptic right.
He campaigned for Brexit, became prime minister thanks to him and last year expelled parliamentarians from the party who opposed the idea of a clear break with the European Union, uniting their conservatives behind their hard line.
But in signing a trade deal, Johnson is taking a calculated risk by disappointing a group of purist Brexit advocates who helped him gain power and who wanted no deal.
An influential caucus of conservative pro-Brexit lawmakers known as the European Research Group has yet to comment on the deal, and Johnson has been working hard to bring them to his side. How many of those lawmakers are opposed to him and who they are will be very significant, said Menon.
“If you have 20 to 40 of them shouting ‘betrayal’, that changes the dynamic,” he said.
Waiting behind the scenes is Nigel Farage, the populist anti-European Union politician who has now renamed his Brexit Party as UK Reform and has shown his ability in the past to alienate conservative supporters.
On Thursday, Farage cautiously received Johnson’s agreement, but with the important caveat that he had not yet read the fine print.
Some Brexit supporters have always felt that betrayal would be somewhere within any treaty negotiated with the European Union, and even before the deal was closed, it was being denounced as yet another in a long series of British surrenders to Brussels. A commentary article in the pro-Brexit Daily Telegraph argued that the government was “deceived at all times”.
Others agree with this analysis, but from a more pro-European perspective, noting that even official forecasts suggest that Britain will lose significant economic growth under the Johnson agreement.
Many companies will realize the limitations of the Johnson agreement as soon as Britain leaves the EU’s gigantic single market and customs union on January 1. The deal did not guarantee much for the service sector, for example, which represents about four-fifths of the British economy.
And the agreement raises barriers instead of eliminating them for the manufacturing sector and agriculture. Therefore, while there are no taxes on the import and export of goods, there will be additional checks on them – the so-called non-tariff barriers.
Port delays – of which Britain has just had an ugly foretaste, when France briefly blocked all travelers and freight from Britain – will add significant costs to companies, which will have to make about 20 million new customs declarations each year and face other compliance costs.
“In the long run, it is such a bad deal that the more moderate wing of the Conservative Party can try to do a better deal,” said Grant, of the Center for European Reform, noting the conservatives’ traditional link to business.
However, perhaps the greatest danger for Britain is that it is now awkwardly stranded, half within, half outside the European economic system, making its relationship with the bloc as tense and politically flammable as ever.
As a large economy that shares a land border with Ireland, a country in the European Union, Britain will be unable to escape the gravitational pull of the huge trade bloc, as will other neighbors who have stayed away from it, experts say.
Switzerland, for example, is in constant and turbulent negotiations with the European Union over its relationship.
Pro-Brexit lawmakers are likely to pressure the British government to break Europe’s standards and laws and test the limits of regained national sovereignty. This is possible under the agreement, but if the European Union believes that such measures are designed to undermine it, the issue could go to independent arbitration and tariffs could be imposed as a penalty.
Johnson may feel that it is in his interest to move forward with contentious rules, either to promote his industrial strategy or to rekindle the politically divisive debate over Europe that brought him to power.
In any case, the mechanism established by his agreement to resolve trade disputes over divergent economic rules is likely to provide a future flashpoint. These or other conflicts between the channels will certainly be ignited by the most chauvinistic parts of the British tabloid media.
“This means an almost permanent negotiation process between Britain and the EU,” said Grant, “and every time that happens, it will increase emotion and rhetoric.”