Tuesday 21 January 2020

Brexit negotiating time is short - and it won't just be the UK that will suffer

May has performed erratically in both the Brexit vote and the general election

Spitting Image: Three actors, portraying Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and Tim Farron, at a new general election themed fairground attraction called ‘Poll-tergeist’ — which is an addition to Derren Brown’s Ghost Train: Rise of the Demon attraction at Thorpe Park Resort in Surrey, aimed at encouraging young people to get involved with the vote.
Spitting Image: Three actors, portraying Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and Tim Farron, at a new general election themed fairground attraction called ‘Poll-tergeist’ — which is an addition to Derren Brown’s Ghost Train: Rise of the Demon attraction at Thorpe Park Resort in Surrey, aimed at encouraging young people to get involved with the vote.
Colm McCarthy

Colm McCarthy

Leo Varadkar's first task in government will be to prevent, insofar as he can, an early train-wreck in the UK's negotiations with the EU-27. Brexit represents, in the words of Bob Geldof, the 'greatest act of self-harm in British history'.

His characterisation is not wrong - but it is incomplete. The harm is unfortunately not confined to Britain, and if the Brexit process is botched, there will be avoidable extra damage to all of Europe and especially to Ireland.

Thursday's general election comes after an extraordinary year in British politics. The decision to quit the EU after 43 years in membership was an unprecedented change of course, rewriting abruptly the entire framework of its external relations for one of Europe's most important countries.

But the referendum decision was a thumbs-down only to continuing in the EU: no new architecture for Britain's trade and diplomatic relations with the rest of the world was on the ballot paper. Nor did the referendum campaign shed any light on what the new arrangements might be - some Leave campaigners even promised continuing membership in the EU's single market - and the electorate knew only what they were voting against.

They voted 52-48 against staying in the EU but it was open to the new Conservative party leadership to comply with the referendum outcome while minimising the damage. Instead the fissure with Europe has been gratuitously widened - and Geldof's verdict becomes more reasonable by the day.

The self-harming did not end with the referendum result. The election campaign has seen no advance on the banalities of the referendum debate and neither of the main parties has come up with a clear vision for Britain's future outside the EU.

The prompt resignation of David Cameron saw Theresa May, who campaigned without enthusiasm on the Remain side, emerge as Conservative leader and prime minister. Initially seen as an experienced and cautious politician, the proverbial safe pair of hands, she has gambled recklessly from the start.

Negotiating options with the EU have been sacrificed and a full-on Brexiteer agenda adopted, apparently in the interest of uniting her party and scuppering the competition on the right of British politics from the anti-Europe UK Independence Party. Three prominent Brexiteers have been appointed to the ministries dealing with foreign relations and trade.

The Labour Party leader and alternative prime minister Jeremy Corbyn campaigned with May-like lethargy for the Remain side after a long parliamentary career as a critic of all things European.

Despite the recent slide in the polls, the Tories are strong favourites and the United Kingdom appears set irrevocably on departure from both the single market and the customs union, seeking only a free-trade deal with the EU, as could any third country anywhere in the world.

Neither party has committed to any formal relationship with the European Union beyond that currently enjoyed by Chile or South Korea. This is a serious gamble: unless you believe that 'no deal is better than a bad deal', Mrs May's incessant and baseless mantra, Britain needs favourable trade access with the EU-27 and the EU-27 hold the best negotiating cards.

The prime minister has added the further gamble of an early election which may fail to yield the enhanced Tory majority promised by the early opinion polls. If the Tory win on Thursday is modest, she will commence the Brexit negotiations in no stronger position than she enjoyed on the dissolution of parliament, having wasted a further month of scarce negotiating time.

The short timetable for negotiations is a serious handicap for the British side. The new government will commence engagement with the EU in the week beginning June 19, but the early meetings will likely be procedural.

Then comes the sacred Brussels summer followed by elections in Germany on September 24. It is possible that elections due in Italy no later than May next year could also be brought forward to coincide with the poll in Germany.

Even if things go smoothly there will be no serious negotiations until October. Brexit day is March 29, 2019, and any wide-ranging free-trade deal, the stated desire of both sides, will have to be ratified by each national parliament as well as by the European Parliament. There is therefore no more than about 12 months left for actual negotiations, allowing time for ratification.

The short timetable suits the EU-27 more than the British - they can simply run down the clock, facing Britain with the live prospect of the 'no-deal' outcome which May claims - fatuously - to be superior to a negotiated outcome.

Without some kind of transition arrangement a no-deal outcome would be chaotic, for Britain but also for Ireland.

At a simple level, the port of Calais handles a quarter of Britain's commercial traffic to and from continental Europe. There is no room to build customs facilities - even if there was time.

In any event, there would be no trucks, as the licences of UK truck drivers to operate in Europe would lapse on Brexit day. Air traffic rights around Europe would also lapse, which means beach holidays in the Outer Hebrides if you need low fares.

The insouciant dismissal of these day-to-day concerns by the political class is a powerful ingredient in the current disillusion with politics.

No deal is a terrible deal for the UK even if the logistics could be managed, in the view of just about every trade expert who has written on the issue.

The expectation that Britain could revert painlessly to some ready-made default option under World Trade Organisation rules is confined to ministers and their advisers. This could quickly become a headache for Leo Varadkar and his new cabinet.

His first task should be to persuade his European partners that the priority must be acceptance by the UK that a transition arrangement is inevitable.

There has been virtually no discussion on the specifics of Brexit during the campaign and the Conservative Party's 84-page manifesto contains not so much as a single paragraph about transition arrangements. (The Labour Party's manifesto is better, acknowledges the transition imperative and is more flexible about future relations with both single market and customs union. You can have 12-1 against a Labour majority).

The front-line Conservative ministers have swanned through the election campaign as if the available negotiating time is enough to achieve the outcome they desire, essentially Brexit without consequences. This is not a feasible outcome with all the negotiating time in the world, even if the EU-27 shared their ambition, which they are treaty-bound to resist.

The biggest risk when serious negotiations commence is that they get diverted into rows about the UK's exit bill and the rights of expatriates, neither of which can be resolved quickly. That way lies a certain negotiating break-down and no-deal chaos.

Best by far to acknowledge up front that time is too short and that a post-Brexit transition is unavoidable. Such a transition will require acceptance by Britain of interim jurisdiction for the European Court, some continuation of free movement and continuing financial contributions.

When Brexiteer politicians persuaded 52pc of the electorate that Britain could quit the European Union quickly, without consequences or costs, they were lying, incompetent, or both.

Sunday Independent

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