UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is said to have burst into song when he learned that Brexit talks with the European Union were at a standstill last week.
Colleagues overheard him sing the Australian folk song, “Waltzing Matilda,” in anticipation of a no-deal outcome, where Britain returns to an Australian-style relationship with the EU, with both sides imposing customs on specific imports (eg wine, meat or automobiles).
While there have been tensions between Paris and Berlin over how difficult it is to push the UK into this crucial final step in negotiations over fishing quotas and a watchdog for any deal, there is little sense of tension in Downing Street over the prospect of a sudden end to cross-border trade and collaboration on January 1, when the UK officially leaves the EU.
Indeed, most members of Johnson’s government have ceased to fear any deal.
In the referendum on EU membership in 2016, the British voted to leave the EU for various reasons; but the reason the conservative right wanted to leave was to free the UK from European standards on workers’ rights, consumer goods and the environment. In view of this, the only way for the EU to give UK exporters access to its market is to provide for agreed penalties in the event of any deviation from these standards.
So the point in dispute is this: is Britain leaving the EU without a deal and facing immediate tariffs on its exports, or does it agree to a mechanism for these tariffs be taxed in the future? Without a complete collapse of Brussels, allowing full access to the UK without concomitant rules, there is no third option.
The economic cost of no deal for the UK would be faster and higher, but either way, the form of Brexit the UK government wants is ‘difficult’. Boris Johnson’s negotiators and advisers calculate that the difference between a “light deal” and no deal is not worth worrying about.
As the UK budget deficit is on track to hit £ 394bn ($ 524bn) this year – compared to just £ 19bn forecast before COVID-19 hit – the calculation of Johnson must be that the economic blow of no deal can be swallowed up in the much bigger downturn, and resulting debt pile, created by the pandemic. The London School of Economics has valued that a no-deal Brexit could reduce GDP by 8% in ten years: COVID-19 reduced it by 9% in just six months.
Although this last stage of the negotiations was hampered by the issue of fisheries, which employs only 12,000 people in the UK, the real issue is equivalence and oversight: Should the UK maintain standards? in its economy of producing goods – for example, food and automobiles – which are equivalent to those of the EU, and which body arbitrates the disputes?
So, as we move into the final phase, there is a real risk that no deal will happen.
The right-wing section of Johnson’s party – the European Research Group (ERG), made up of 59 members, has always wanted to see either a no-deal Brexit or a total downfall of the EU. For them, and for their supporters within the party, many of whom were once members of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) or the Brexit Party, slamming the door as they leave the EU is just a goal.
The group began to formulate a broader political platform: 28 MPs, for example, signed a letter attacking “cultural Marxism,” a far-right trope that has been described as anti-semite by the Jewish Council of Deputies. The conservative right has become staunch activists against the so-called “awake” agenda, with some recently defending the right of football fans to boo as players “take the knee” in support of Black Lives Matter.
Support for Johnson’s government – at least in England and Wales – remains close to 40% in opinion polls. With the Labor Party neck and neck, under the leadership of culturally liberal Keir Starmer, the conservative right knows that once the European question is resolved their strongest defensive ground over the next three years will be a cultural war on race. . , gender and “freedom of expression”, modeled after that led by the American right.
So whether it’s no deal or no deal, the script is written: anything that goes wrong will be the fault of Europe and its socially liberal supporters in the center and left.
The problem in their plan was the election of Joe Biden. When Brexit was originally conceived, those pushing it the hardest were sure Britain could strike a trade deal with the US in parallel, or even ahead of the one with the EU. Trump had thrown a wrecking ball in the multilateral world order, starting a trade war with China, and Britain would emerge as a free agent in this new world of opportunity.
Instead, the UK faces a Biden administration hostile to the threat Brexit poses to peace in Northern Ireland and which appears determined to engage with Europe before Britain in any negotiations. commercial.
As the last-minute drama unfolds, we must remember that, both financially and in terms of services, the UK has already left the European Union – and will struggle to attract foreign investment. It is one thing to talk about becoming “Singapore on the Thames”, a deregulated financial haven. But Singapore works because it’s the crossroads of the West with Asia – and the Thames, if you look at a map, flows to Europe.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.