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Britain has left the EU, but Brexit’s second act will be even harder

Britain's Prime Minister and Conservative leader Boris Johnson drives a Union flag-themed JCB, with the words "Get Brexit Done" inside the digger bucket, through a fake wall emblazoned with the word "GRIDLOCK", during a general election campaign event at JCB construction company in Uttoxeter, Britain, December 10, 2019.
Ben Stansall/AFP/Pool via REUTERS
Is the difficult part over?
By Adam Rasmi
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Hardcore Brexit backers wanted Big Ben to bong on Jan. 31 at 11pm (midnight Brussels time), to mark the hour Britain left the EU. They set up fundraisers to bring the clock out of refurbishment for the historic occasion, with the largest amassing £272,000 ($356,217).

Then their hopes were dashed. Though prime minister Boris Johnson first floated the idea, the government had made no plans and Parliament has no mechanism to accept donations. A face-saving projection of a giant clock on 10 Downing Street, a light show around Whitehall, and Union Jacks flown at Parliament Square were arranged instead.

The bungled plan might’ve been a blessing.

The 43 months since Brits voted 51.89% Leave to 48.11% Remain has sunk two prime ministers and left the country divided and tired. Voter fatigue helped Johnson’s “Get Brexit Done” campaign secure a decisive election win in December. The government recognizes that Brexit remains toxic; Downing Street once pledged to stop using the word.

Apart from small changes—issuing blue passports instead of the EU’s burgundy ones, and a new 50p commemorative coin—the UK will maintain nearly all aspects of EU membership, including trade arrangements and freedom of movement, during the transition period that runs until Dec. 31, 2020.

Johnson will thus spend the next 11 months trying to strike a free trade deal with the EU. European leaders say the timeline is “impossible;” Johnson has ruled out an extension. Close to 50% of the UK’s exports go to the EU, contributing up to 15% to the domestic economy. Which means the UK has a fundamentally weak negotiating position. Failure would lead to trade under WTO terms—in effect the dreaded “no-deal” Brexit we’ve heard about for three years.

Johnson famously drafted two columns ahead of the 2016 referendum—one backing Leave and the other Remain—and settled on the former. He will now be basking in the post-Brexit afterglow.

Big Ben, for its part, will return to service in 2021. But the bell may toll for Boris’s EU trade deal sooner than that.

This essay was originally published in the weekend edition of the Quartz Daily Brief newsletter. Sign up for it here.

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