Read: Why Britain Brexited
Since becoming prime minister, Johnson has stuck to this script. Before the general election, Johnson chose the Brexit model that prioritized sovereignty and maximum freedom from the EU, even at the cost of erecting an internal U.K. border with Northern Ireland (and ignoring economic forecasts that a more distant relationship with the EU would be worse for the British economy). Now, empowered by his landslide general-election victory, he is once again putting sovereignty first.
Whether or not Johnson means what he says—or indeed will stick to his position—he has certainly settled on the core argument for Brexit. The very point of leaving the EU is to repatriate power over areas of national life currently held in Brussels. Even those who oppose Britain’s withdrawal acknowledge that Brexit without any repatriated control is illogical. The question is of degree—Johnson’s is close to the maximalist view, proposing the return of full sovereign control over every aspect of the U.K.-EU relationship, including food and fishing, immigration and trade. “If we truly commit to the logic of our mission,” he declared yesterday, “I believe we can make a huge success of this venture.” Britain, in Johnson’s view, just has to have confidence, and the rest will work itself out.
But herein lies the fundamental challenge of Brexit: Is it possible for a midsize power such as Britain, living alongside a hegemon, to reassert national control without suffering such a loss of prosperity that the project becomes fatally undermined? Although this question is specifically British, it is only the most extreme example of the concern facing all countries in today’s global economy, where decisions taken in the boardrooms of east Asia can put thousands of people out of a job in Ohio as much as in northern England. Ultimately, what does sovereignty—or control—even mean in the 21st century, and is it possible to take it back?
The proposition that it is will be tested in the political petri dish called Brexit during the coming 11 months, as London and Brussels attempt to thrash out the terms of a future relationship before their self-imposed deadline of December 31, 2020, when, if no agreement has been reached, trade barriers will be erected.
The crux of the negotiation between Britain and the EU is “governance,” or put simply, what happens if a dispute arises in the future. The EU wants to ensure it cannot be undercut by the U.K. if it allows British businesses unlimited tariff-free access to its market, which both sides have agreed is the aim.
To ensure this doesn’t happen, the EU is asking for binding “level playing field” provisions written into any free-trade deal to ensure Britain maintains certain standards, on the environment, for example, or state aid or social conditions. So far, so reasonable. But this is where things get tricky. What does the EU mean by a level playing field? And who, or what, should arbitrate if one side or the other believes there has been a tipping?