Let’s focus on the time issue in all the current Brexit discussions and work out why the Cabinet and the Conservatives are still fighting over Theresa May’s MaxFac and Customs Partnership plans.
Under the Article 50 procedure, Britain will leave the European Union on 29 March 2019, unless there is a joint agreement on another date.
On that date, if there is no joint agreement, the UK will leave without any agreed terms.
That means that all EU laws cease to have effect in Britain and that nothing of what will have been so far agreed during the Article 50 negotiation process has any effect.
So, if anyone wants an orderly exit, then a deal has to be approved in time for 29 March 2019.
Importantly, that means a deal must be both agreed and ratified by that date.
Ratification means the approval of a qualified majority of the EU (27) member states, the European Parliament and the UK Parliament.
The super-best case scenario is that this would take only 3 months, if everyone was ready to drop everything else.
However, a safer and more realistic estimate is 6 months.
That means that by October this year, and certainly by Christmas, we need an agreement on the text so it can go off to ratification.
But you cannot leave the big Questions to October, for a late-night meeting, because the EU27 (and the UK) will need to provisionally agree to concessions made in such a forum.
So, the principals need to agree before October, which would be the point for a signing ceremony.
So, we are looking at a late Summer for the principals to agree, but the nature of the issues on the table means that a movement is needed sooner.
The EU, in particular, would need a detailed alternative to the current backstop option on the table by next month to ensure it is both viable and acceptable.
So, all the current MaxFac/Customs Partnership debate — despite nominally being about post-Brexit relationship — has to be sorted now, since it impacts on both the Irish dimension and the transition.
Thus, the priority issue for the UK Government should be getting its house in order for the Article 50 deal, rather than what is beyond.
Now, let’s work through why the Cabinet and the Conservatives are fighting over which of the two plans that the European Union rejects is happening...
Both Customs Partnership and Maximum Facilitation have been rejected so far by the European Union as underdeveloped and probably unviable. So, why persist?
There are different levels at work here, so let’s try to unpack them.
First point is that I am going to reject the ignorance of the EU position as an option: it has been said enough and those involved know enough that this explanation doesn’t fly.
Secondly, it reflects very different views of the UK’s future relationship. Tony Connelly, RTE’s Europe Editor, has written an excellent piece on this.
A Maximum Facilitation means being out of the Customs Union, but trying to keep barriers to a minimum, while a Customs Partnership is being aligned to the Customs Union and keeping very close to it. ‘Win’ this battle and you get to set a tone.
Importantly, many in Britain see the Customs Partnership/Maximum Facilitation paths as viable, but needing some more time to work up (although neither is being, right now). For the Customs Partnership, that points to staying in a Customs Union until then, while Maximum Facilitation points to leaving, then working to drop barriers.
But Customs Partnership/Maximum Facilitation is also symbolically important, as the Conservatives think about the post-March 2019 and post-Theresa May period. They need to lay markers down now to show how they would have done things differently.
As someone pointed out, Brexit will never fail, just never be implemented correctly. So there is a need to get in early to shape that narrative.
At another level, the Customs Partnership/Maximum Facilitation matters because it will be taken into the Article 50 process. Even if it is not viable, it sets the boundary for negotiation, so it matters for feedback into the rest of the process.
Most obvious element here is the Irish dimension: the choice on Customs Partnership/Maximum Facilitation affects the options for the borders. For those Conservatives feeling that the Republic of Ireland is getting to shape too much, so this is the way to run up some new interference.
As of last week, Customs Partnership/Maximum Facilitation is also a means to cement the changing balance in the Cabinet, with the loss of Amber Rudd. Working on Theresa May to toughen her position will continue right through to March 2019.
But, finally, a caveat.
If triggers were going to be pulled, then they would have been. From Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group, from Boris Johnson et al. That they haven’t been suggests that the current situation suits everyone:
Get a deal;
Remove Theresa May;
Complain about Theresa May;
Work out a plan for the UK-EU relations later.
In summary, the European Union is waiting for Godot*.🔷
(*‘Waiting for Godot’ is a play by Samuel Beckett, in which two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, wait for the arrival of someone named Godot who never arrives.)