Whatever else tries, Brexit continues to monopolise UK political oxygen.
The December narrative was progress (phase one complete!). In fact, the UK definitively scrapped its earlier (ridiculous) ambition to negotiate a trade treaty before its self-declared March 2019 “Brexit Day”.
With its new (manageable) aim of a vague political declaration, the focus has moved to the so-called transition period. Again, the UK is taking a little time to understand the situation.
London has asked for a transition period, to keep the benefits of being in the single market and the rest until a new trade treaty is agreed and implemented. The EU has said yes — as long as all the current arrangements of its complex, interdependent legal architecture are maintained. Whilst breezily accepting that in principle, the dynamic of the next period already seems to be the UK popping up with various things it wants to be different (ECJ jurisdiction and EU citizens’ rights the current ones) and the EU repeating, as if to a rather slow child, it’s a package deal you can’t cherry pick from.
The other stumbling block is the supposedly-agreed withdrawal treatment. No sooner were handshakes concluded than the Government’s key negotiator (seemingly not understanding either the nature of an agreement or that his party-facing comments could be heard across the channel) popped up to say agreed yes but conditional on any number of other things. The withdrawal agreement, as was always clear, is not conditional on anything: it’s the terms by which Britain will leave the club, whatever happens. That bravado made ensuring the agreement quickly finds binding legal form an eu priority.
This then is the 2018 UK agenda: get the withdrawal agreement agreed and thread the political needle of moving into an open-ended transition period where nothing changes, with all those continuing positives and negatives. Handily, and contrary to media consensus, this enables the Government to avoid the definitive “hard decision” around whether the UK wants to remain as close and aligned as possible to the European economic, social and regulatory sphere, or whether it will sacrifice some of that to strike out in a different direction (see 10 april 2017, going it a loan).
It all needs to wrapped up ready for 28 countries and the European Parliament to agree in October. At that point, the British body politic and public should see the choice before them differently from now. The question will be: how can we best negotiate our (post-Brexit) future and have as much control of our destiny between now and then?
Option 1 will be to leave at 11pm on 29 March, accept all the rules for an open ended period as they are handed down (as we will no longer have a seat at the table) and give up our right to retain that influence, as once we’re out, we’re out.
Option 2 will be to push back the date of our exit, which may require mutual agreement but will be entirely possible, so retaining our seats at tables and also retaining the possibility of staying a member should that turn out to be the best option as we work through what the world after our hard decision will actually look like.
As October looms, so will the benefits of option 2.🔷
(This piece was first published on Baron Frankal’s blog.)