All still to play for, says former UK ambassador

It is certain Brexit will happen on January 31, says former ambassador to France and crossbench peer Lord Ricketts, but “all is still to play for” when it comes to the UK/EU relationship.

25 December 2019
By Oliver Rowland

“This is a prime minister with a big majority of loyal MPs because many will have been elected for the first time as a result of his campaign,” Lord Ricketts said.

“But if we don’t agree a free trade agreement and all the other things that go with it by the end of 2020, and the prime minister doesn’t extend the transition period, we could leave it into a no [trade] deal situation.

“The status of expats in both countries would be protected but the situation for those moving after would be much worse, as would the wider relationship.

“And if a ‘points-based immigration system’ leads to more difficulties for new EU people seeking work, that would be bound to lead to reciprocal arrangements for Britons in Europe, so the situation for those making new plans could be made much more difficult.

“Given time, the two sides might come to a more flexible position but it may be difficult if the UK sticks to 11 months.

“The prime minister says there’s no way we will extend, but he previously said no way would we extend beyond October 31 to leave. Now he has this big majority, he could make any decision he wants to – an extension, a softer deal or a very hard line.

“He has a free hand but present indications point to a pretty hard Canada-style Brexit.

“But Cana­da and the EU have far less interchange of people and trade than us and I strongly doubt it can be negotiated in 11 months. The crucial point will be the deadline for an extension request, at the start of July.”

Lord Ricketts believes the UK will ask for an extension.

“Crashing out” remains possible, though he does not think it is want the EU would want.

He thinks Mr Johnson is a “pragmatist and opportunist” who does not “come to the European issue with any particular principles”.

His majority makes him less “in hock” to any group in Parliament, but Lord Ricketts believes most new Tory MPs are hardline Brexiters.

“Those who have disappeared are the moderates. So a lot comes down to what Johnson wants and I don’t know, and am not sure even he does, having achieved his main aim of getting us to January 31.”

Lord Ricketts said he worries about the UK maintaining security cooperation with the EU after the transition period, and about fluidity at the borders if new checks come in.

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