The battle to win the Tory leadership is gaining momentum and so is the prospect of no deal. In the first round of votes last week, Boris Johnson secured the support of 114 Tory MPs – 71 more votes than the runner-up Jeremy Hunt. Of the six candidates remaining, five have promised to go back to Brussels to renegotiate a deal but also want to keep the option of no deal on the table. At his launch event last week, Boris Johnson added that a no deal Brexit would be the start of new ‘amicable’ negotiations. This is not how the EU sees things. If anything, the EU27 believe a no deal Brexit would significantly weaken the UK’s negotiating hand.
The EU27 do not believe that the UK could cope with a no deal Brexit for very long. It is true that the EU27 and the UK have agreed to a series of temporary no deal contingency measures to cushion some of the impact of no deal, but these measures would be temporary, unilateral and limited in scope.
Practically speaking, it would be up to Brussels to grant British business the authorisations (from data sharing to recognition of UK standards) they need to keep on trading with the EU – and the European Commission could decide to change or revoke them at any point. But even these measures would not eliminate the need for customs checks at the borders. The EU believe that the disruption of a no deal would be so significant that the UK would be knocking on the European Commission’s doors within a matter of weeks, without having had the time or space to come up with a new plan.
But in Brussels, the EU27 are discussing how they would approach negotiations under a no deal Brexit. In January 2019, the EU’s Chief Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier made clear that the EU was preparing for all eventualities. The EU would need a new negotiating mandate for talks with the UK – which could include stricter demands. The EU27 have said that they would refuse to engage in negotiations about the future until the withdrawal issues – that is the money, the Irish border and citizens’ rights – had been resolved up front. They could also insist on rigid sequencing, for example that there can be no agreement on financial services unless the UK agrees to grant EU countries access to its fishing waters.
The UK would no longer be negotiating as a member state but as a third country. This will mean new voting rules and the involvement of new players on the EU side. Unlike the withdrawal talks, a new UK–EU deal would need the approval of all rather than just a majority of member states. And if the deal covers areas that fall under EU and national law, such as energy, citizens’ rights and some aspects of the internal market, then national and regional EU parliaments will also need to ratify the deal.
The EU is likely to engage parliaments early on to avoid a repetition of what happened at the end of lengthy negotiations with Canada – where Belgium held up ratification of the deal because one of its regional parliaments had reservations around labour standards. This could constrain the EU’s ability to agree to some of the UK’s demands later on in the process.
But a no deal would have unintended consequences too. Some EU governments worry that rowing back on their negotiating red lines to suit the UK would encourage anti-EU politicians in their own countries to use similar tactics to get the EU to change position. With so many difficult discussions on the horizon – from the eurozone to the refugee crisis – the EU will be keen to avoid setting a precedent in the Brexit talks. Member states could try to delay the start of negotiations – even if no deal means economic and political damage on both sides.
Supporting, or not rejecting, a no deal exit may be a viable campaigning strategy – but it is a risky political strategy. Any lingering goodwill between the UK and EU27 would be squandered. It also forgets that the UK would be negotiating from a different starting position. If a new prime minister is serious about securing a Brexit deal, he or she will need to be honest about the trade-offs and how a no deal would inevitably weaken the UK’s negotiating hand.