I suspect that there will be no shortage of people pointing out the inaccuracies and misrepresentations in the official government position on The process for withdrawing from the European Union.
The aim of this post is to do something slightly different.
David Cameron’s partisan co-option of the civil service is extremely troubling and sets a dangerous precedent. But that does not mean that the document is wholly without merit. Indeed, the position that the officials outline should draw a line under much of the silliness by campaigners for Leave and Remain.
First and perhaps best is the recognition that, as the Brexit blogs have been saying for months, EU withdrawal will be a process and not an event. The officials describe this important change of perspective, which really ought to neutralise any talk of a “sudden death Brexit”, thusly: “In short, a vote to leave the EU would be the start, not the end, of a process”. Quite right.
The document also puts to rest the ludicrous scaremongering of The Independent on Sunday, Tim Farron, Bronwen Maddox, Prospect Magazine, Fraser Nelson, Stephen Kinnock, Vicky Ford and Will Straw. To my way of thinking, none of these people have any legitimacy in respect of the EU referendum, owing to their absurd misrepresentation of the Article 50 process.
As the Cabinet Office paper confirms: “The final agreement would need to be agreed by both parties: the EU side and the departing Member State”. In other words, the terms of withdrawal would be a matter for negotiation. The Britain Stronger in Europe (BSE) campaign, which glommed onto much of the nonsense spouted by the sources identified above should also take a credibility hit for inanely repeating such folly.
The next section of the document is slightly less edifying. “As the Prime Minister has said, if the vote is to leave the EU, the British people would expect that process to start straight away,” the officials report. As ever, one must be careful to read the precise words that are written. What the British people “expect” is not the same as what the government would do in the event of a vote to leave.
Although it is vital that the British people see progress towards EU withdrawal, the likelihood of the Article 50 process beginning “straight away” is slim—to say the least. In the interests of both parties and for the sake of expediting an appropriate exit agreement within (or as close as possible to) the two-year Article 50 deadline, there would be “scoping talks” prior to the start of the official Article 50 process.
In fact, other parts of the report make clear that there are internal EU procedures that would make beginning Article 50 talks “right away” impractical at best and self-defeating at worst. The notification would be submitted in due course to a timetable that befits the seriousness and the scale of the undertaking.
Usefully, the officials also make clear that Article 50 is “the only lawful way to withdraw from the EU. It would be a breach of international law and EU law to withdraw unilaterally from the EU”. To do so would also be needlessly hostile and not conducive to facilitating the positive future relations with the remaining EU Member States that all sensible leave campaigners seek.
In addition to which, there are explanatory notes that highlight what Dr Richard North has been trying to communicate to the wider Brexit community for several years; the talks will be complicated and a short-term agreement on trade and regulation will be easiest to achieve via adoption of an “off-the-shelf” model, the best being the EFTA/EEA or so-called “Norway Option”.
Although not appropriate as a final settlement for Britain’s future relationship with the EU, the EFTA/EEA option is a useful staging post. “Ambitious trade agreements can take up to a decade or more to agree from scoping to ratification, and sometimes take longer,” note the officials. This is precisely why the best minds in the business have long recognised that EU withdrawal must be thought of as a process and not only as an event—what a happy state of affairs to see government officials confirming that such a proposal does indeed presage a positive way forward for an independent Britain.
In that context, the officials’ appraisal is missing at least one crucial aspect, which makes the following assessment far too pessimistic: “It is therefore probable that it would take up to decade or more to negotiate firstly our exit from the EU, secondly our future arrangements with the EU, and thirdly our trade deals with countries outside of the EU, on any terms that would be acceptable to the UK”. Not if Britain pursues a multi-phaisic extraction (MPE).
Based upon this official report, there can be little doubt that a structered exit approach that pursues flexible and continuous development offers a credible vision for what Out looks like.