This year has seen some spectacular political victories: Jacinda Ardern in NZ’s election and now Boris’s post-Brexit trade treaty with the EU. But having secured a triumph, the risk is in resting on the laurels, when one should be looking to exploit to the full.
And Boris’s victory does look comprehensive. His critics alternated between saying he would never get a deal or it would be a very bad one. In fact, he has achieved his main objectives of rolling over the existing tariff-and-quota-free trade terms and securing recognition of the UK’s sovereign equality in managing the ongoing relationship.
But while it protects much of the trade status quo pro tem, the deal looks less stable as a platform for future EU-UK relations. Some important areas, such as the mutual recognition of financial services regulation, have been left for future resolution, and trade privileges can be withdrawn should regulatory policy diverge significantly on either side. Given the EU’s twin impulses towards unilateralism and protectionism – as seen for example in its arguments with Switzerland – the agreement may prove a charter for squabbling. Even without this, the likelihood of the UK economy orienting away from Europe seems high.
From the EU perspective, once Britain decided against alignment, this was probably the best deal that could be struck. The EU preserves its current trade, whilst reserving the right to erect future barriers.
Meanwhile, the challenge for the UK’s government is setting policy to encourage outsize growth in high productivity areas like bio-medicine, tech and finance that will gradually displace more traditional and EU-dependent industries. While a hard Brexit might have kick-started this process, the trade deal will make for a less abrupt and politically easier transition.
You could even argue that this deal is more significant for the EU than for the UK. It has put beyond doubt the proposition that a country can leave the union if its people so will without the world coming to an end. That may be a very good thing. It puts more pressure on the EU leadership to accommodate diversity and requires them to secure a wider consent for any further steps towards federalism. An adaptable union may prove more durable.
It certainly shows the presience of former PM David Cameron when he pleaded with German chancellor Angela Merkel in 2015 for some modest flexibility in the EU membership rules that would permit him to win the forthcoming Brexit referendum. That might have been enough to bind Britain into a stronger union.
But perhaps the best reason to be pleased with this agreement is that disputes of this magnitude in Europe’s past were often resolved through violent conflict or even war. In the last four decades, there have been four big geopolitical questions for which the respective answers were: Tiananmen Square, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump – and Brexit. Brexit is shaping quite well in that line up.