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The Question "Will We Leave the EU?" Has Been Answered. But What For?

Three Questions to Joe Owen

INTERVIEW - 31 January 2020

On the 31st of January, Brexit will take place. More than 3 years after the June 2016 referendum, the never-ending suspense will come to an end. Or at least the end of its first act. Joe Owen, Associate Director at Institute For Government, answers our questions.

On the 31st of January, the United Kingdom leaves the EU. What will this actually change?

The UK will no longer be a member state. In that sense, Brexit will have happened. But practically, for most people, everything will feel the same as today when they go to work on Monday morning. We will simply enter the transition period. The big change is that now, the question "will we leave the EU?" has been answered. But all the questions that come from that are far from being answered. What will be our relationship with the EU? What does this mean for our businesses and our citizens? How do we manage this change? Those questions are still undecided, and we will have only 11 months to sort them out.

Which will be the new priorities for the new government, and Boris Johnson, now that he has got "Brexit Done"?

During the general election campaign, the Prime Minister made one very big pledge: "leveling up the country".

During the general election campaign, the Prime Minister made one very big pledge: "leveling up the country". This would mean tempering down some of the regional inequalities within the UK. It relates to infrastructure spending, and will bring a lot of attention to some of the poorer areas in the North of England, where Boris Johnson wants to keep hold on some of the voters that have never voted conservative before. That will be his main focus. He is also interested in changing the way government works, changing the way the British constitution works, and will dedicate a lot of time to that question.

But even though we can say that Brexit is done, one of the things that will dominate the UK government over the next year will continue to be Brexit, and our relationship with the EU. In March, we think there will be almost 30 000 civil servants working on Brexit alone inside government. The Prime Minister has decided to be directly involved in that process: a political appointee will be responsible for running the negotiation on his behalf, with a small team of 30 or 40 people, at 10 Downing Street, the heart of government. But it will roll out across the government, and involve tens of thousands of civil servants.

The main promise of Brexit was the possibility to build "Global Britain". What can it mean in the midst of the US/China competition?

Now that we have left the EU, we are able to start negotiating with new trade agreements as an independent trading nation. One of the first countries with which we will start a negotiation will be the US. For the UK, a deal with the US will be seen as a big prize, and also as leverage against the EU. There will be other priorities such as Japan, Australia, New Zealand.

For the UK, a deal with the US will be seen as a big prize, and also as leverage against the EU.

But what are these trade agreements for? What does the UK want to do on the global stage that it couldn’t do before? On that, we are still unsure, and there is no real strategy in the UK for what Global Britain could mean. Over the coming weeks, we are likely to see mandates released for the start of these talks, and that will be an indication. We might choose to trade away access to our agricultural markets, which were kept closed as part of our membership to the EU, in favor of greater access to other countries for services, which represents around 80% of the British economy. Is that the plan? If it is, it would mean that the agricultural base will be very unhappy. How we will position ourselves between the US and China, all these questions are still unanswered.

The question "will we leave the EU" has been answered. But what for? And how will we position ourselves between the US and China? This still needs to be defined over the coming weeks or months.

 

Copyright: Tolga AKMEN / AFP

 

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