What’s next after the UK elections?

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On the 12th of December, 2019, the United Kingdom electorate were asked to vote for a new government. Most observers expected Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party to win the election, that much was clear. But few, including myself, could have guessed just how incredibly well Johnson would do. This election was painted as one in which the UK was bitterly divided on the question of Brexit, on where the electorate did not quite know what it wanted, or how it wanted it delivered. A general election was meant to solve all of that by clearing all of the pieces off the game board, and starting anew, with a fresh mandate… and what a mandate it was.

The Conservatives received an incredible 43.6% of the vote, against Labour’s 32.2%. In the previous 2017 General Election, the Conservatives obtained 42.4%, whereas Labour received 40%. Whilst the Tories improved by just over 1%, Labour lost close to 8%, most of which it shed to the Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party. What does this mean? In short, the Conservatives managed to convince some of Labour’s working class voters to switch, but also Jeremy Corbyn was not seen as fit to lead the country at this current juncture. The Tories now have a landslide majority of 80 seats in Westminster, which makes Boris Johnson the most powerful Conservative Prime Minister since Margaret Thatcher in 1987.

At this point, Boris Johnson could walk into Westminster wearing nothing but his birthday suit and socks, and he would still command enough of a majority to pass bills through Parliament. As far as Brexit is concerned, it is happening, and the UK will be making their first break from the European Union on the 31st of January, 2020, where it will then signal the beginning of the so-called transition period, which Johnson has insisted should not last any longer than the end of 2020.

What is the transition period? It is a period of time in which the EU & UK negotiators will begin to look at the relationship between the two sides after the UK no longer remains a member. It is supposed to come to an agreement on where the two sides will cooperate, such as defense, scientific research, nuclear energy safety, law enforcement, and trade, amongst others. To use an analogy, whereas the Brexit negotiation was meant to dictate the terms under the divorce took place, the next stage is to determine who gets to see the kids and when, who keeps the dog, and who will be dropping the kids off the school on which days of the week. In other words, it will determine how the relationship, which both sides need, will develop in the years ahead and where the two sides will work closely together.

There will be many areas in which discussions should move ahead at a good pace, with little concerns for being used as political footballs. Science and technology research for instance, or law enforcement cooperation. However, trade and defense will be amongst the most contentious areas, given that the EU has a considerable advantage in the former, whereas the UK holds strong cards in the latter. The EU cannot provide overly advantageous trade terms to the UK without causing issues with other trade partners who have ‘Most Favoured Nations’ status, meaning those nations will always have the best trade deal which is available to any other nation trading with the EU. But whereas the UK needs access to the EU market, despite all of its talk of an ‘international Britain’, the EU needs British expertise in a number of areas also, not least defense and financial services.

A lot will depend on the demeanour of two individuals in particular: Boris Johnson, and Commission President Von der Leyen. Both have recently been elected to their posts, and will see these discussions as important junctures in the first year of their respective administrations. Neither side will want to look like they are hampering progress, but neither side will want to feel like they are getting the short end of the stick in any final agreement on their future relationship.

These negotiations should be different than the original Brexit negotiations held during May’s tenure in London. The UK was split at the time, not least in Parliament, tying her hands considerably. Johnson has a very powerful mandate, and will not give in easily to the EU’s demands, even if the EU feels bound by its own rules and norms. The Commission will have taken note of Johnson’s victory with no less surprise than the rest of us, and they know that negotiations with London will have them at less of an advantage than they had been previously.

Boris Johnson will want to get the Brexit question out of the way as soon as he can, in order for him to outline his vision for focusing on some domestic elements of his electoral agenda. Until all of the details are hammered out, and the transition period completed by end of December 2020, Brexit will hover over his premiership. This time around, however, the British Prime Minister will be facing Brexit with a smile on their face. Perhaps for the first time in nearly 5 years. Buckle up, it is not over yet.

Matthew Bugeja is Ci Consulta Geopolitcs expert and advisor. 

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