A little over one month ago I commented on the fact that the phrase “transitional arrangements” was rising in prominence among politicians, journalists and academics.
That trend has continued. The idea that the UK and EU could agree some kind of an “interim” or “bridging” agreement in order to secure a low-impact EU exit is now largely accepted across a wide swathe of political opinion.
Although people who voted “remain” are generally more amenable to the idea than people who voted “leave”, I would suggest that is in no small part due to the way in which the referendum campaign was fought.
Rather than presenting referendum voters with an alternative to EU membership, which could have acted as a “positive object” around which “leave” campaigners could have rallied, the Vote Leave campaign centred on fear and lies. Meanwhile, Prime Minister, David Cameron, instructed the Cabinet Office to eschew contingency planning, and centred his campaign on fear and lies.
That remarkable act of public policy vandalism—too little commented upon, in my view—should see Cameron damned as one of the most shallow and irresponsible people to have held the highest elected office in the land. However, we are where we are.
The recognition that EU exit will be an ongoing process, rather than a one-time event, is accepted by all but the most irreconcilable Remainers, who still espouse the notion that Britain could yet remain in the EU on current terms, and all but the most anti-social Brexiteers. The proportion of the population who agree that Britain must now leave the EU constitutes a substantial majority.
What is still disputed among this majority is the form that Britain’s post-exit relationship should take and what the UK government should aim to achieve in the upcoming negotiations. Should the UK pursue an interim or a transitional deal? What form should that deal take? Should the UK pursue a bespoke arrangement from the outset? What form should that deal take and what would the EU be willing to agree?
In that regard, little has changed since the vote. The constraints that existed prior to the “leave” victory will still shape the immediate exit settlement. What the UK can realistically expect from the Article 50 talks will still have to balance what the British public will accept and what the UK and EU can agree in the limited time that is given.
The main consequence of the legacy campaigns was to raise unrealistic expectations, which people of bad faith can now cite as presaging a “betrayal”. Too many people have attributed too much UK government policy to Britain’s EU membership. The act of leaving the EU will not provide an immediate respite. EU withdrawal is a turning the ship event.
To that end, Article 50 guarantees only two-years to negotiate an exit agreement and, although the negotiating period can be extended, such an extension would be likely to come at a price. According to a UK government Command Paper: “Article 50 provides for a two year negotiation, which can only be extended by unanimity. There could be a trade off between speed and ambition. An extension request would provide opportunities for any Member State to try to extract a concession from the UK.”
Thereby do we begin to limit the ‘plausibility scope’ for the negotiation. The EU-Canadian Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) has taken eight years to negotiate and is not yet ratified. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is four years in the making and appears to have (at best) stalled. There is not yet one free trade agreement (FTA) listed on the EU Treaty Database which took less than three years to complete negotiation and ratification.
Starting from scratch and reaching an agreement inside two-years is a total non-starter—and thus do we arrive at the first major point of contention between those who argue that the UK should aim to agree a framework for future co-operation, with the flexibility required for ongoing revision and review, and those who argue that the UK should aim to agree a comprehensive set of trading arrangements including new mechanisms for mutual recognition of conformity assessment, certification and regulatory convergence.
That is only a tiny subset of the headings that would need to be covered under the rubric of a comprehensive FTA.
Now, I would like to pause for a moment. Two-years is not long enough to agree a comprehensive FTA and an extension is liable to come at the expense of further concessions.
Unless anybody can see another way out of this particular conundrum (comment below), that leaves the UK government with two choices: 1) apply for an extension and accept that one or more EU Member State will probably want to set a condition or extract a concession in return; 2) pursue an EFTA/EEA type deal, which shortcuts opportunities for delay.
Whether the UK government intends to pursue a bespoke agreement within the confines of the Article 50 timeline or a co-operative framework which could be developed over time is one of the most important decisions the government faces.
It is not that the UK and EU could not agree an FTA given sufficient time and political will, it is that both quantities are liable to be in shorter supply in the context of an Article 50 negotiation. The EU does not have an electorate to which its leaders are directly accountable, the Commission will not be turfed out if the UK and EU do not reach an agreement and jobs are put at risk. On the other hand, that kind of consideration does tend to sharpen the mind of even the most bovine Tory minister.
Then there is the broader context of 43 years of political, economic and social integration, and the necessity for a productive relationship with the EU and EU Member States after Britain’s withdrawal.
The EU is embedded in UK government administration (and vice versa) in a way that few people seem willing to acknowledge. The depth of the dependency is nowhere more apparent than in areas such as trade, fisheries and agriculture. The UK government has not had to develop independent policies in these areas for decades. There is a lot of learning to be done.
The same is true to a lesser degree in areas such as energy and environmental policy wherein British interventions are interpreted within an EU framework. Since the mid 2000s and, in an accelerating fashion since the Treaty of Lisbon, EU Member States have also granted EU institutions and personnel more power over foreign and defence policy.
There are also questions which, if Britain is to be a democracy, will need at least a modicum of public debate, regarding future participation in scientific and cultural programmes.
The idea that this vast array of topics could be addressed to anybody’s satisfaction, alongside those matters which are currently taking a higher political priority, has always struck me as unlikely—and, seeing the performance of our “political class” during and since the EU referendum, I now think even that assessment was overgenerous.
If the UK can leave the EU, fulfilling the strict terms of the referendum mandate, which I would define as Britain’s withdrawal from EU Treaties, Institutions and Representation, without doing unnecessary economic damage, the UK government will be in a far stronger position when it comes to forging a new relationship with the EU, which can be advanced over the longer-term.
The form of that new relationship needs to become a matter for active discussion and debate before entering into the Article 50 talks. The government will need to become much more proactive; it will have to start making some difficult decisions and, as a consequence, stop pretending that “Brexit” can be all things to all people.
In my view, Brexit means two things. The first, as I have already delineated, is Britain’s withdrawal from EU Treaties, Institutions and Representations. The second, is to re-establish Britain as an independent, sovereign nation-state, with the same opportunities and responsibilities as the likes of New Zealand, Australia and Canada.
There are almost certainly multiple routes to that destination. There are also several potential obstacles and dead-ends. It is my contention that pursuing a staged approach to Britain’s EU exit could elicit the kind of internal solidarity that will strengthen the UK’s hand in the negotiations and put the EU in the unenviable position of being invited to reject the most reasonable compromise currently in view.
The way in which we arrive at a solution that can work for the majority is through deliberation and debate. Shortening lines of accountability and bringing policy-making power closer to the electorate is only worthwhile if the public are part of the same conversation as the politicians and the pundits.