Brexit breakthrough: Only two moments mattered when it came to the crunch issue


When Boris Johnson stood up in the Greenwich Naval Observatory, less than 72 hours after Britain’s formal exit from the European Union on 31 January, he was unequivocal.

The UK had “ended a debate that has run for three-and-a-half years” and “settled” the long-running question of sovereign authority, he said. To the sound of a nation’s collective sigh of relief, he joked that he would not “even mention the name of the controversy except to say that it begins with B”.

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Boris Johnson spoke with Ursula von der Leyen by phone for over an hour
Famous last words: Boris Johnson said after Brexit happened he would try not to mention the B-word

But Brexit never went away. It was not settled at the point of our formal exit from the EU, nor for almost all of the 11 months allocated to sort a deal on trading terms, security and other elements of co-operation.

The sense of crisis returned as the year wore on.

In one session of Prime Minister’s Questions at the start of December alone, Mr Johnson referred to Brexit eight times, despite that earlier pledge it had disappeared.

But did it have to be like this?

More from Brexit

A festive wreath hangs on the door of 10 Downing Street in central London on December 13, 2020, as the leaders of Britain and the European Union agree to contine talks beyond the latest deadline. - Britain due to leave the EU single market in 19 days. (Photo by Tolga Akmen / AFP) (Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)
All eyes are on Downing Street for news of an announcement

There were only two moments this year that mattered when it came to the crunch issue at the heart of the dispute, and both were at the start.

The first was on 8 January when new European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen came to the LSE in London to declare the EU was willing to do a “zero tariff, zero quota” deal but only if we also signed up to “zero dumping”.

This was jargon for allowing tariff-free access after signing up to some form of level playing field: adhering in some form to EU rules on areas such as state aid, environment and workers’ rights.

Almost a month later in Greenwich, Mr Johnson set out how far he would go to meet the EU’s demand.

Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president
The EU wanted the UK to sign up to some form of level playing field

He made clear it was never likely that Britain would subsidise its companies more than EU ones, lower environmental standards below EU ones or degrade rights offered to workers, some of which are already higher than the mandatory minimum standards imposed by Brussels but “without the compulsion of a treaty”.

In other words, the entire debate has always been around standards which the EU wants to maintain in legal form, and which the PM claims we never intend to diverge from, but he doesn’t want to be bound by future legal agreement or European court.

The last 11 months have been spent trying to square that circle.

David Frost, the UK chief negotiator, and Michel Barnier, his EU counterpart, have spent 10 months letting the other aspects of the deal – covering data protection, transport, financial services, security, energy and the like – fall into place, all along knowing this final large outstanding piece could bring down everything.

Now, it looks as if Lord Frost might have succeeded.

In the end, it was framed as a debate about who has more power and taking back control.

But in the final hours, we look set to find out soon it was possible to square the two positions all along.

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