Brace yourselves - Brexit will take years ... and years
Published 29/07/2016 | 02:30
How long will it take for this Brexit business to be finalised? Well, the short answer is that it depends on who you ask; the honest answer is that right now nobody knows. But nobody thinks it can be done quickly.
The head of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Roberto Azevedo, scared the stripes out of many people last month when he noted that it took Russia 20 years to negotiate its membership terms of that body.
"It is very difficult to predict," he said. "Russia's accession to the WTO took 20 years. Other negotiations happened faster.
"It will be a very high-risk bet that negotiations would be quickly completed and that negotiations would be uneventful."
It all brings a discouraging prospect of continuing economic uncertainty.
People can be misled by talk of a two-year timeframe to complete this EU-UK divorce and the framing of new arrangements. It took 43 years of incremental work on agreements involving the UK and the other member states to get to where we are. So unpicking it will be complex and time-consuming.
The process is governed by Article 50 of the EU's Lisbon Treaty, which only came into force in 2009. That provision is suitably vague, has never been used before and some people suspect that it was framed specifically to make an EU exit difficult.
British Prime Minister Theresa May is no hurry to trigger Article 50 for various reasons and may wait well into next year to do so.
It is London's sole prerogative to decide when it is triggered. Once that is done, the last piece of real UK power is used up.
Another factor in Mrs May's playing for time is that once Article 50 is triggered, the UK is then shut out from all the EU's workings.
But the main rationale behind delay is an effort to take stock of what Britain actually wants and what realistically might be achievable in marathon negotiations.
Once Article 50 has been triggered, the UK has two years to negotiate withdrawal. If a time extension is needed this will require the unanimous agreement of the other member states. Leaving without a deal would mean that WTO rules applied.
Brexit Minister David Davis has suggested that the UK could formally sever its relationship with the EU by December 2018. However, on Wednesday, as he threw a big spanner into the works, the International Trade Minister Liam Fox mentioned 2020 as a completion date.
British Chancellor Philip Hammond, who wanted Britain to remain in the EU, has suggested that it could take up to six years for the UK to complete exit.
The entire deal will also have to be ratified in each of the member states - which will further delay things.