Prime Minister Boris Johnson has extricated Great Britain (though not Northern Ireland) from most of the EU’s rules, regulations and jurisdiction © FT Montage/Reuters

Finally a trade deal — and with a whole week to spare. Only with the published text of the deal between the UK and EU will a full sense of who has given ground and where emerge. But after four and half years of chaos, trauma and often humiliating political turmoil, the UK finally has a settled idea of what Brexit looks like. 

The fact that a deal has been done is good news. The consequences of failure would have been bad for both sides, though immeasurably worse for the UK.

It must be stated though that this deal, while far better than nothing, is a long way short of what a great global trading nation should desire; the bare minimum that could have been agreed given the ideological intransigence of the government. It is certainly not the easy deal Brexiters blithely predicted. Manufacturers may be spared tariffs and quotas but they face costly extra bureaucracy which is likely to hit exports to Europe. There is even less for the service sector, the engine of the British economy. The price of British sovereignty is essentially the first trade deal designed to reduce access.

But it is at least a basis on which to build and one that hopefully allows an end to the bombast and xenophobia that has characterised so much of the Leavers’ public discourse. It means that, at the last, the UK is leaving the EU on reasonably amicable terms.

A deal was always the most likely outcome. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was clear that real movement would come only in the final days and, to be fair, he did secure more by holding his nerve. No deal was never the plan (especially mid-pandemic) and just as well. The chaos of the past few days after France closed its ports due to a new Covid-19 strain in the UK did not augur well for the UK’s supposed no-deal contingency plans.

The coming days will see wild proclamations about Mr Johnson’s negotiating skills and how he secured a great deal for Britain. But, as with the withdrawal agreement, the UK has been forced to fight for even the bare bones and has not dragged Brussels beyond where it was prepared to go. Brave and empty talk of playing off EU nations against each other amounted to little. While the UK squabbled with itself, the bloc retained a fairly united front. This should be a salutary warning for British politicians in the future.

Mr Johnson knows there will be those on the Leave side itching to cry betrayal. Nigel Farage, the Brexit party leader, needs to protest his continued relevance (though his immediate response was supportive) and the same is true for some Tory MPs. Screaming “sellout” allows absolutists to spare themselves the blame for what follows, as it will not have been a “proper Brexit”. But Conservatives knew there had to be compromise. They want and need this to be a win and in the short term, at least, most will be inclined to fall into line behind the prime minister.

And so they should, for in terms of cutting ties with the EU, the Brexiters have got almost all they desired. Mr Johnson has extricated Great Britain (though not Northern Ireland) from most of the EU’s rules, regulations and jurisdiction. Regulatory divergence will carry a heavy cost, but that is now an economic decision. For him, it is a chance to draw a line under the UK’s Brexit feuding, though he will never win back the irreconcilable Remainers.

In the long term, however, Britain is weakened. The UK alone carries less clout in the world. The Union is in great peril. Northern Ireland will look ever more toward the Republic; Scotland appears likely to return the Nationalists to power with their agenda of a second independence referendum. More important, the UK’s economic trajectory is now slower and lower. The PM’s political hope will be that Brexit setbacks can be hidden in the broader pandemic-related downturn.

There is no doubt that this is a personal political triumph for Mr Johnson and he is entitled to enjoy this moment. Most Britons, however they voted, will now hope to move on and prosper. But he also knows he owns this Brexit and there will be no avoiding responsibility for its cost if it goes bad. We still await a true economic sense, a vision of what this was all for. Finally shorn of the economic advantages of EU membership, the UK is going to need a more agile and effective leadership than this government has thus far generally shown itself capable of delivering.

Whatever the UK may become in the future, no one can say the years since the 2016 referendum have projected a confident, independent nation. The turmoil has done much to quell similar movements in other EU nations. From the EU’s point of view, Brexit could not have gone much better.

For all that, the UK has at least avoided the worst outcome and now has a foundation for the future relations and closer economic and diplomatic ties which must be rebuilt in the years ahead. This is not the last word on the UK’s ties to the EU. It is, as they say, merely the end of the beginning.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com


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