GZERO Media logo

Boris Johnson rolls the dice on a no-deal Brexit

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves after attending a news conference at the European Union leaders summit dominated by Brexit in Brussels, Belgium in October 2019. Reuters

Brexit has been a messy process since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in June 2016. So messy, in fact, that although London and Brussels have already technically agreed on how to part ways at the end of this year, it's still unclear what the relationship — particularly on trade — will look like after December 31.


If there's no agreement, the UK would leave the EU with "no deal", which would entail both British and EU businesses and consumers suffering tariffs that would make goods and services more expensive amid the economic crisis unleashed by COVID-19.

The latest drama. With talks deadlocked, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is gambling big again. He is pushing for a new law that would allow London to scrap parts of the interim withdrawal agreement that the UK already has with the EU if both sides can't agree on a permanent trade pact before October 15 (Johnson says he's willing to leave with no deal if necessary).

The main sticking point is the border between the independent Republic of Ireland — an EU member state — and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. The border has been virtually invisible since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that put an end to decades of political violence in Northern Ireland, but Brexit throws that into question. Although the withdrawal agreement specifies no hard Irish border until a broader trade deal is signed, Johnson's bill would reserve the right for the UK to ignore that clause, if necessary, to prevent some EU trade rules from being enforced in Northern Ireland.

Johnson insists he is doing this to ensure the EU has no say over post-Brexit internal UK commerce. But many believe it's the wrong move, at the wrong time.

The gamble has caused an uproar in the UK. Five former PMs (including David Cameron, who called for the 2016 Brexit vote) argue that passing the law is backtracking on a binding international agreement, which sets a bad precedent as London needs to negotiate multiple new bilateral trade deals — like it just did with Japan and hopes to do soon with the US. Individual UK nations — for instance Scotland, which voted to remain in the EU and where nationalists seek another independence referendum — worry that under the proposed bill, they may have to accept lower quality standards for goods and services which would make it harder to sell to the EU.

Brussels is also livid. There's a broad perception within the EU that the British PM is trying to pull an eleventh-hour fast one as the new UK bill has been floated when both sides are in the homestretch of trade talks. But Brussels, used to the UK's often chaotic negotiation style with Brexit, has made it clear it won't budge. As far as the EU is concerned, any future trade deal must fall within the limits of the withdrawal agreement, period.

However, if Johnson follows through on his threat to walk away, the EU may call his bluff. After all, there's simply not enough time to renegotiate a new withdrawal agreement that would need to be ironed out and ratified by all 27 EU member states by December 31... in the middle of a pandemic.

So, what's Johnson up to? One explanation is that he is just playing hardball to get more concessions from Brussels on the ongoing trade talks. Another is that no-deal is the only way for the UK to control all its domestic trade, which would be a big win for the "hard" Brexiteer wing of the divided Conservative Party. But if the EU pushes back and the UK ends up suffering the economic fallout of a no-deal Brexit, will Johnson blame Brussels or himself?

Khant Thaw Htoo is a young engineer who works in Eni's Sakura Tower office in the heart of Yangon. As an HSE engineer, he monitors the safety and environmental impact of onshore and offshore operations. He also looks out for his parents' well-being, in keeping with Myanmar's traditions.

Learn more about Khant in the final episode of the Faces of Eni series, which focuses on Eni's employees around the world.

On his first day as president, Joe Biden signed a remarkable series of executive orders. Boom! The US rejoins the Paris Climate Accord. Bang! The United States rejoins the World Health Organization. Pow! No more ban on immigration from many Muslim-majority countries. Biden's press secretary reminded reporters later in the day that all these orders merely begin complex processes that take time, but the impact is still dramatic.

If you lead a country allied with the US, or you're simply hoping for some specific commitment or clear and credible statement of purpose from the US government, you might feel a little dizzy today. The sight of an American president (Barack Obama) signing his name, of the next president (Donald Trump) erasing that name from the same legislation/bill, and then the following president (Biden) signing it back into law again will raise deep concerns over the long-term reliability of the world's still-most-powerful nation.

More Show less

Kevin Sneader, Global Managing Partner at McKinsey & Company, provides perspective on what corporate business leaders are thinking during the global coronavirus crisis:

Should businesses be pessimistic or optimistic about 2021?

It's easy to be gloomy about the year ahead when faced with the realities of a cold, bleak winter in much of the world. Add to that lockdowns across Europe, surging case numbers and hospitalizations, and dreadful events in the Capitol in the US to name a few reasons for pessimism. But I think there is a case for optimism when it comes to this year. After all, it's true to say that it's always darkest before the dawn, and my conversations with business leaders suggest there are reasons to be positive by 2021.

More Show less

Renowned tech journalist Kara Swisher has no qualms about saying that many of the country's social media companies need to be held accountable for their negative role in our current national discourse. Swisher calls for "a less friendly relationship with tech" by the Biden administration, an "internet bill of rights" around privacy, and an investigation into antitrust issues.

Swisher, who hosts the New York Times podcast Sway, joins Ian Bremmer for the latest episode of GZERO World, airing on public television nationwide beginning this Friday, January 22th. Check local listings.

Brexit pettiness lingers: Here we were naively thinking the Brexit shenanigans were over after the EU and UK agreed to an eleventh-hour post-Brexit trade deal last month. We were wrong — the saga continues. Now, a new row has erupted after the Johnson government said it will not give the EU ambassador in London the same diplomatic status awarded to other representatives of nation states. Unsurprisingly, this announcement peeved Brussels, whose delegates enjoy full diplomatic status in at least 142 other countries. The UK says it will give the EU envoy the same privileges as those given to international organizations, which are subject to change and do not include immunity from detention and taxation given to diplomats under the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations. EU members are furious, with officials accusing London of simply trying to flex its muscles and engaging in "petty" behavior. The two sides will discuss the matter further when UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets EU representatives next week, their first face-to-face since the two sides settled the Brexit quagmire on December 31. Alas, the Brexit nightmare continues.

More Show less
The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's Newsletter: Signal