To leave EU, UK must have a plan
The battle for a Brexit deal seems to have been won. This resolves one argument, only to ignite many others
Tick. Tock. We have now got to that scene in the Brexit movie where rivulets of sweat begin to drip down the faces of the crew. They have noticed that the clock is running down. It is nearly four months since Theresa May dispatched her letter telling the EU that Britain was leaving. Yet nothing has been agreed. The cabinet continues to quarrel about the ultimate shape of Brexit. The talks in Brussels are making little discernible progress. Time is one of Britain’s worst enemies in this process – and the clock becomes a more deadly foe with each day that is wasted.
It never was credible that the many aspects of the UK’s ties with its closest neighbours and most important trading partners could be renegotiated to the remorseless timetable that kicked in when May invoked article 50. Britain’s relationship with the EU is the product of more than four decades of intricate engagement.
If the past few months have served any purpose, it has been to educate members of the government in the perilous complexities of this enterprise. The insouciance with which the Outers sold Brexit is beginning to give way to a belated recognition of the scale of the enterprise and the calamitous consequences of botching it. David Davis, the lead negotiator for Britain, now tells people that the task makes “the Nasa moonshot look quite simple”. When I asked one official why the mood in government had shifted in recent weeks, he responded: “They have started to look into the abyss.”
The greatest terror for the Tories is what could happen to the economy – and with it their future as a party – if Britain ends up in the kamikaze scenario of tumbling out of the EU without any agreement about the future relationship. Business, which has turned up the volume of its warnings since the election, is finally pushing through the door of Number 10 and using the opportunity to tell Theresa May to her face that a “no deal” Brexit would be a national disaster.
So a concept previously discussed only among Brexit nerds is now going viral. It goes by the name of “transition deal” or, in the prime minister’s preferred euphemism, “implementation period”. The slow learners in the cabinet have finally grasped that Britain will require a smoothed departure if there is to be any hope of avoiding a shock Brexit.
The most hardline Brexiters are frothing with opposition at the very idea of a transition. They see it as a Remainer ruse to stay in the EU in all but name. It will be a version of the Hotel California: Britain will check out, but never leave. This is not entirely paranoid. One of the attractions of a staged departure for unreconciled Remainers is that it will give Britain longer to think about whether it really wants to go through with this.
The British debate tends to neglect an important fact. There can be no transitional arrangement without the consent of the EU27. Michel Barnier, the point man for the commission at the Brexit talks, currently has no mandate from EU leaders to negotiate a transition. He would have to go back to them before he could engage on the subject. Many of the EU27 are sympathetic to the idea, as they are also astonished that Britain has been late to see the need for this, but their agreement would come with big qualifications attached.
The first obstacle is that the EU27 won’t even talk about the long-term relationship until “sufficient progress” has been made on the terms of the divorce. Two of the fiercest areas of contention are money and custody. After two trips by Mr Davis to Brussels last week, there is no agreement in sight on the future rights of EU citizens in the UK and Britons living in the EU27.
Let us suppose that the outlines of the divorce settlement can be agreed. Then the EU27 would be willing to talk about a transitional arrangement. With this caveat. The EU can only negotiate a transition if Britain is clear about where it wants to end up. Business, likewise, says that it can’t be expected to keep investment decisions on pause until the spring of 2019. They are demanding clarity about the government’s desired destination and they want it by this autumn. So don’t be too beguiled by the apparent outbreak of cabinet unity about a transition. This will mean nothing unless they can agree where they want to transit to. Tick. Tock.