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

The Guardian Weekly - - Comment & Debate - An­drew Rawns­ley

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.