Everyone, other than the UK government, insists that negotiating and implementing a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the UK and the EU by January 2021 is improbable, many would argue impossible. Yet the Withdrawal Bill that the government has brought before Parliament prohibits the UK seeking an extension to the ‘standstill’ Transitional Arrangements beyond that date, even if there is no FTA in place by then. For Hard Brexiteers that prohibition might appear as a welcome and reassuring guarantee that, failing the EU giving the UK everything it demands in an FTA , there will be a Hard No Deal Brexit in January 2021. For those who want a Soft Brexit, the prohibition might resurrect their nightmare of crashing out of the EU with the hardest form of Brexit. However, both the hopes of one and the fears of the other may be ill-founded. Indeed, it maybe that, the shorter the time available to conclude an FTA, the softer will be the Brexit it achieves.
Arguably, the EU and the UK could conclude an FTA the moment the Withdrawal Bill becomes law in January. How? By simply embedding the so-called ‘standstill’ Transitional Arrangements in an FTA along with a mechanism to modify its ‘standstill’ effect piecemeal as new long-term trading and other arrangements are agreed. If that is right, it follows that it would be possible before January 2021 for the EU and the UK to agree an FTA which would give effect to any new long-term arrangements they could agree within that time limit but apply the ‘standstill’ provisions to matters on which no new long-term agreement had yet been reached.
In that way, Boris Johnson would be able to claim that he had achieved his goal of having a FTA in place by January 2021 and had kept his promise not to seek an extension to the Transitional Arrangements beyond that date.
The fact is that most FTAs contain transitional arrangements: so, nothing new there save, on this occasion, it would once again allow Boris Johnson to appear to have his cake and eat it. Meeting the January 2021 deadline for an FTA would burnish his Hard Brexit image yet it would have been achieved by a Soft Brexit which extended the stand-still transition into the indefinite future.
An unlikely scenario? Well, no more unlikely than Boris Johnson, who is looking for a ten+ year tenure in No.10, crashing the UK out of the EU on 31 January 2021, wrecking manufacturers’ supply chains and the trading arrangements on which agriculture and myriad other industries depend while precipitating breakdowns in the supply of everything from medicines to foodstuffs and becoming the scapegoat for whatever ills befall the UK in the years that follow.