With Boris Johnson securing a large majority in the recent general election and subsequently - and finally - getting the government’s Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament, the UK is officially set to leave the EU on 31st January 2020.
However, although it may seem ludicrous to say, given the ongoing Brexit saga over the past three years, the hard work is only just beginning. It highlights that the systems and processes required - including everything from border management to establishing new security protocols - will take years.
That’s the view of influential think tank Institute for Government, which has released a report looking at the biggest tasks facing the government and the key decisions it will have to make during the transition period (ending 31 December 2020).
During this time the government and the EU need to agree on issues much broader in scope, including the economic relationship, security co-operation and issues such as data sharing.
However, negotiations are not the only problem over the months ahead. The government will also need to implement the Withdrawal Agreement, including the Northern Ireland Protocol (which prevents a hard border on the island of Ireland), as well as pass new legislation, establish new government functions and policies, and establish the responsibilities of new and existing public bodies.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that he will not be extending the 11 month transition period, placing additional pressure on the situation.
The report states:
The task of adjusting to life outside the EU will stretch well beyond December 2020. The government will need to decide whether it is prepared to end the transition if these jobs are only partially complete, or whether it is willing to look for other ways to find more time.
The Institute for Government clearly lays out the key challenges facing the government over the coming months and years. These include:
The UK government needs to set up structures to manage trade-offs during future negotiations - The Prime Minister needs to ensure he has structures in place across government and devolved administrations to be able to draw on expertise to make political decisions during the upcoming negotiations.
Limited time - The 11 month transition period puts the government under pressure. This means that it will probably only be possible to cover a narrow range of issues, with both sides ending up prioritising a largely goods-only free trade agreement. The IfG believes that any negotiations on services is likely to be postponed until after December 2020.
No agreement on a future relationship is very possible - The report states that it is still possible that the UK and the EU will not be able to reach agreement on their future relationship by the end of December 2020. And that for businesses across the UK, no deal on the future relationship would be almost identical to the result if the UK left without a deal prior to the Withdrawal Agreement being agreed.
Implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol by December 2020 almost impossible - This could result in the UK being taken to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and cause practical and political disruption in Northern Ireland. The IfG notes that the Protocol involves complex customs arrangements and regulatory and customs checks - but key details are yet to be decided. The deal also doesn’t have the backing of any Northern Irish political party and it looks almost impossible to complete the practical changes, for government and business, by the end of the year.
Getting operationally ready for Brexit at end of transition period is biggest job yet - The UK could face major disruption if the government sticks to its red line of not extending the transition period. The report states that at the end of December 2020, this is when things really change as a result of Brexit - at the border, across the economy and in policy areas such as immigration. By March, there is expected to be almost 30,000 civil servants working on Brexit. If the UK and the EU do not secure more time to allow for the implementation of a deal, it could result in disruption.
British business does not have enough time to prepare for life outside the EU by December 2020 - While negotiations are ongoing, businesses will not know what the final relationship will be. Many businesses have said they would need a year to prepare once the details of the deal are clear, and traditional trade agreements often see changes phased in over two or three years. The IfG argues that the kinds of changes businesses will face as a result of Brexit are likely to be much bigger in scale but with possibly just weeks of knowing details. The impact could range from tariffs, to paperwork and changing the terms of how they operate.
Brexit will not be ‘done’ in 2020 - The report states that Brexit will continue to dominate government for years to come. For Whitehall it will continue to be the biggest and most challenging task faced by a government in decades. The IfG notes that whilst the UK may be leaving EU institutions at the end of January, many of the biggest tasks still lie ahead - agreeing the future relationship with the EU, practical changes, policy questions, and understanding how the UK’s union and internal market will operate outside an EU framework.
If you thought the last three years were draining, it seems that we’ve got a lot more of it to come...