20:11 GMT26 October 2020
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    Since his election Johnson has adopted a ‘siege warfare’ attitude to Brexit in stark contrast to his predecessor, instituting regular meetings of the government’s ‘Cobra’ committee – typically responsible for national crisis management – setting up a dedicated cabinet task force and assigning a sizeable budget for departure planning and execution.

    Prime Minister Boris Johnson had conceded Britain could remain in the customs union and single market for two years after leaving the European Union, and other elements of Theresa May’s withdrawal package could be revived.

    During a visit to Wales, the premier stated he remained determined to deliver Brexit by 31st October, and made clear it would be entirely the EU’s fault if the UK left without a deal – “it’s their call, it’s up to them if they want us to do this,” he said.

    ​However, contrary to his previous declarations of a certain ‘no deal’ departure should Brussels refuse to re-enter negotiations, he suggested a transition period could be implemented until 2021 in order to limit potential damage to British citizens and businesses.

    The customs union ensures the free and effectively borderless import, export and transit of goods across the bloc, while the single market guarantees the free movement of goods, capital, services, and labour between member states. Both facets of EU membership are highly controversial among eurosceptics and 'leavers', and May's suggestion of keeping the UK in either were strongly opposed by hardcore Brexiteers on the basis it would amount to remaining in the EU via the backdoor. 

    A Whitehall source told the Daily Mail “there has has been a big shift” on government thinking on Brexit, with a “Canada plus” relationship – which would necessitate a new customs regime, among other things – now under consideration. 

    Making a no deal exit more likely is Irish leader Leo Varadkar’s rejection of Johnson's demand to dump the ‘backstop’, designed to prevent the return of a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

    ​The premier has made clear his commitment to upholding the Good Friday Agreement, without the institution of physical checks or infrastructure on the border, but Varadkar says alternative arrangements to keep the border free-flowing hadn’t been “identified and demonstrated” as yet.

    The Taoiseach has invited Johnson to Dublin for talks, but sources have previously indicated the Prime Minister shan’t be undertaking major visits to other European member states prior to the UK exiting the bloc. Nonetheless, he travelled to Northern Ireland on the evening of 30th July ahead of talks today intended to restore the Stormont legislature, which has been suspended since January 2017.

    ​Direct rule from London could be imposed in the event of no deal – a prospect said to be Brussels’ “main assumption” at present. While Johnson is likely to attend an EU summit 17th October, the prospect of a further Brexit extension being requested is being entertained by no one.

    Commenting, Dr. Nikos Skoutaris, expert in conflict resolution and EU law at the University of East Anglia, noted that under Part Four of the UK Withdrawal Agreement, the country could remain in the single market and the customs union until 31st December 2020, a transition period that could be extended for a further year or two years should Whitehall request. "Technically," he suggests it's possible to have such a transition period without the Agreement in place.

    "The UK and the EU could potentially agree on such transition under Article 50 TEU by 'ring-fencing' this part of the Agreement. The EU has made it abundantly clear the Agreement will not be re-negotiated and it stands on a 'take it or leave it’ basis," he says.

    In respect of checks on the Irish border, Dr. Skoutaris states that as the UK has opted to be outside the single market and customs union once Brexit takes place, it would by definition be compulsory for checks on persons and goods to be introduced.

    "No two countries outside the EU have managed to completely remove border checks. Even Norway and Switzerland that have the closest possible trade relationship with the EU have customs border post," he notes.


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