British Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a sweeping election victory on a promise to “Get Brexit done”, but a reality check awaits for voters hoping that the messy divorce is finally over.
It’s just the beginning.
Johnson should now be able to secure parliamentary approval for the withdrawal deal he struck with the European Union in October so Brexit happens on Jan 31.
Britain then goes into a transition period until the end of 2020. Time enough, says Johnson, to negotiate a new relationship with the EU, including on trade.
But EU diplomats and officials say there could be many potholes along the way, and Britain could still find itself at the cliff edge of a no-deal exit one year from now.
The EU hopes to start trade talks with Britain by March, leaving just 10 months to strike a deal and get it approved by London and the EU, including member states’ parliaments.
The transition period can be prolonged by one or two years but London must request an extension by the end of June.
With a large parliamentary majority, Johnson may pay less heed to hardline Brexiteers in his party than he did before the election and renege on his pre-election pledge not to extend the transition period beyond 2020.
If Johnson fails to reach an agreement with the EU by the end of next year, and he refuses to negotiate past his own deadline, then the legal default would be a no-deal divorce.
EU officials point out that the end-June deadline for extending the transition would not be easy to push back.
If Britain were to stay in the transition period beyond 2020, it would require a financial settlement as the EU enters its new 2021-27 budget. London would be reluctant to keep on contributing to EU coffers so that discussion would be tricky.
The EU insists it will not seal a trade deal with a large, economically powerful neighbour without solid provisions to guarantee fair competition.
The EU’s demands will focus on environmental and labour standards, as well as state aid rules to ensure Britain would not be able to offer products on the bloc’s single market at unfairly low prices.
Britain’s conundrum is that it will be under pressure to loosen rules on agricultural and food standards to strike a bilateral trade deal with the United States. But this would be crossing a red line for the EU, which would restrict access to its market to protect its own producers.