Why a Brexit deal won’t end UK-EU squabbling

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LONDON — Hold on tight. Brexit negotiations might (or might not) be almost over but there is more turbulence to come. 

Even if the U.K. and EU clinch a deal, it will not be the end of the wrangling. The debate will fast turn to how Britain might use its new freedom to diverge from EU rules — and how Brussels might punish London for doing so.

Observers agree that the U.K. will shun some EU standards and regulations — what was the point of Brexit otherwise? — and absorb the pain of retaliatory tariffs as a consequence. The issue will be complex and fraught with diplomatic and financial risk. A tactless move could see the relationship descend into economic warfare. 

“There are lots of forces driving a gradual divergence,” said Ivan Rogers, former U.K. ambassador to the EU. “The question is, is that divergence governable and relatively smooth and reasonably amicable whilst we remain close friends, or does it become bumpy, difficult, conflictual, or maybe worse than conflictual — constantly flaring up into trade wars as people bite chunks out of each other?”

Britain does not expect a tit-for-tat relationship with the EU, but knows the level of rancor in its future relationship will depend to a great extent on the governance arrangements agreed in the deal.

Either way, Rogers has little faith that the current U.K. administration will play nice with the EU and make sure it approaches big changes with tact. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who led the Vote Leave campaign, has form for going rogue to get his way. His top aide Dominic Cummings, who masterminded the 2016 pro-Brexit campaign, cares little for niceties. 

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