UK’s Johnson Faces ‘Very Tight Timetable’ to Negotiate Post-Brexit Trade Agreements With EU

© REUTERS / Liam McBurney/Pool Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson reacts during a speech in the Stormont Parliament Buildings in Belfast, Northern Ireland, January 13, 2020
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson reacts during a speech in the Stormont Parliament Buildings in Belfast, Northern Ireland, January 13, 2020 - Sputnik International
Following a formal vote in the European Parliament in Brussels on Wednesday, Britain will formally withdraw from the European Union on Friday. However, there still remains a great deal of uncertainty regarding the UK’s trade agreements with the US and the European Union, Alexander Mercouris, the editor-in-chief of The Duran, told Sputnik Thursday.

“Many of the people who were bitterly opposed to the UK leaving the European Union are, if not reconciled to it, at least fatalistic about it. As to the practical implications, we don’t yet fully know, but most people have come to accept that over the next few weeks and months, it will still be possible to travel from Britain to the [EU] and back without much problem, and normal life will continue,” Mercouris told Loud & Clear host Walter Smolarek.
“The big question is, there’s got to be a trade deal negotiated,” he said, noting that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson “has given himself a very tight timetable to get it sorted by the end of this year, and if he doesn’t, we could be facing great uncertainty.” 

According to a report by the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), the UK plans to withdraw from the European Union’s customs union and single market, but still plans to establish a new free trade deal with the European Union afterward.

“That could result in customs checks, higher regulatory costs or other hurdles to imports and exports,“ the WSJ explains. However, Mercouris believes that Britain will mostly be focused on establishing a trade agreement with the European Union rather than the US.

“I think Boris Johnson and the government understand that their overriding priority at the moment is to come to some kind of arrangement with the EU, and I think that will be absorbing most of their energies. Because the practical reality is that much of Britain’s trade is with the EU rather than the US. It is with the EU that most of the supply chains are, and I think that is the priority,” he said.

“Looking further down the line, there is a great deal of talk about a trade deal with the US, but with every single passing day, the problems with that grow. We have seen how the US has put great pressure on Britain to agree to discontinue its use of Huwei, the Chinese technology company … and of course, the US has also tried to use the prospect of a trade deal to put pressure on the UK to agree to US foreign policy in the Middle East both with respect to Iran … and the new proposals that have been made to settle the Palestinian and Israeli conflict,” Mercouris pointed out.

“Most officials in Britain are not keen on getting involved in these American plans to that extent, and I think popular opinion would be very averse to it,” he said. “So, I think there are many problems ahead with a trade deal with the US. I think Boris Johnson is probably committed to it, but his priority at the moment is sorting out something with the EU.”

“And of course, the US is in great conflict on trade issues increasingly with Europe also, with issues about steel and car tariffs now floating up, and with the US still treating Britain as in a sense an extension of the European economy in these terms. There have apparently already been threats to the British from the US about car tariffs, and it’s problematic to see how these negotiations can move forward at anything like the speed some people are talking about,” Mercouris explained.

Mercouris also doubts that Brexit will cause a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and the six counties of Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.

“I don’t think there’s any possibility of that happening. The only danger would be if at the end of this deal, Britain found itself without any kind of deal with the European Union. I think both the British and the Europeans will try as hard as they possibly can to avoid it. What we have in the meantime is this interim arrangement - very unpopular with the Northern Irish DUP [Democratic Unionist Party] party, which was until recently, the conservative government’s coalition partner in Britain - whereby in effect, the European Union, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland continue to trade with each other on what you might call ‘EU Customs Union terms,’” he said.

“But there is now a kind of barrier … between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. That can only continue in theory if Boris Johnson sticks to his timetable during the interim period, which is only supposed to last this year, but I think once we move forward, we will see the British try to find somehow to preserve the soft border with Ireland,” Mercouris explained, also noting that Johnson is better situated to tackle that than previous conservative governments.

“He’s in a stronger position than Theresa May was because he’s got, for the moment, a united party behind him, he’s got the afterglow of his election victory, and he’s got a majority in the House of Commons. But in negotiation terms, this is the point where it becomes much more difficult. What he was able to do, the reason he was able to win the election, was because he was able to broker deals with [French President] Emmanuel Macron and the Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar to sort out some kind of interim arrangement which would allow Britain to leave the European Union on the 31st of January. But unfortunately for him, the really difficult part of the negotiations, which is the trade deal, comes now,” Mercouris explained.

“The big question is, who is in the stronger position? Is it the European Union, or is it Britain? And given now that we are talking strictly about trade issues, not about the overarching political question over whether Britain is going to leave the EU or not, it’s going to be much more difficult for Boris Johnson to find political fixes with European leaders like Macron and Varadkar to get his way through this. Johnson has never shown much interest in the nuts and bolts of trade agreements, so I think it’s probably also an issue that does not play realistically to his strengths,” Mercouris added.

The United Kingdom previously missed the Brexit deadline twice: in March and in October 2019. This led to early parliamentary elections in December that brought victory for the Conservatives, who gained 48 seats in the House of Commons. The UK Labour party lost 60 seats, prompting party leader Jeremy Corbyn to announce his plans to resign in early 2021, Sputnik reported.

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