Blind forces are in play in the Brexit talks

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

British Prime Minister Theresa May leaves Downing Street, 11 October 2017. [Facundo Arrizabalaga/ EPA]

Anxieties and obsessions, arising from historic divisions in the British Conservative Party, have led to an artificially inflexible and brittle interpretation of the meaning of the 2016 Referendum result, writes former Irish Prime Minister John Bruton.

John Bruton was Taoiseach of Ireland from 1994 to 1997. He has also served as the country’s minister of finance and minister for industry and trade, as well as being the EU’s Ambassador to the United States between 2004 and 2009.

The UK government has so far been unable to convert that rigid imperative into a detailed, legally viable, and constructive, outline of its desired future relationship with the EU.

If it got into detail, the disagreement between cabinet members is so deep that the Conservative Party would split and the government would fall. The Labour opposition has a similar problem.

It suits both of them that the EU side in the negotiation is insisting that substantial progress must be made on other issues before talks about future relations between the EU and the UK begin.

If the UK government had to set out a detailed position on the long-term future relationship, it would split. Yet, logically, that is what it should have sorted out before ever writing the Article 50 letter.

Likewise, the EU political system determines the EU’s approach.  EU leaders have to cope with populism in their own countries, so they do not want to see the populism of Britain’s Brexiteers rewarded.

There is annoyance that the UK, for whom so many special deals were made in the past, now wants to leave the Union it freely joined over 40 years ago.

The EU negotiating position is also necessarily inflexible because it has to be determined by 27 countries. It can only be changed by consensus among them, and that can only be arrived at very slowly.

Intransigent political forces are heading for a collision on a rigid timetable.

The time limit for negotiation set in Article 50 of the EU treaty is very short.

It will require immense speed of negotiation on a vast range of difficult questions: not only between the EU and the UK but also potentially with the World Trade Organisation and perhaps with EFTA, which the UK would have to join if it wants to be in the European Economic Area, like Norway.

All this will have to be done between January and November of 2018. Both sides in this negotiation should ask themselves this question: are they now at risk of finding themselves on rigid tramlines, heading straight for a cliff, and if so, should some rail sidings be put in place, into which the two trains might pull, for a moment of reflection, before they go over the edge in March 2019?

There is little point in the UK asking for the EU to move the negotiation on to future relations between the EU and the UK, unless and until the UK itself is capable of spelling out in substantial detail what it wants.

It needs to be able to say what trade, environmental, and consumer safety policies it will follow post Brexit and how these can be compatible with what the EU needs. After all, Mrs May herself has said that a successful EU is a vital British interest!

The UK Trade Policy Observatory (UKTPO), in an article by Professors Alan Winters, Peter Holmes and Erika Szyscak, has suggested that Theresa May’s idea of a “transition” or “implementation” period of two years, after the UK had left the EU, might be very difficult to implement.

They saw several problems with her idea. When the UK leaves the EU in March 2019, it will also be automatically out of the EU Customs Union too. Therefore, the UK and the EU would have to negotiate a new temporary Customs Union.

It would have to notify the WTO of this new temporary Customs Union, which could potentially lead to protracted delays and negotiations with WTO partners.

The UK and EU would also have to agree on how all EU regulations and directives would apply in the UK during the transition period. This agreement might cover issues on which EU member states retain competence.

This might mean that the transition agreement would require ratification by all EU member parliaments. That would take time, and meanwhile, the UK would be out of the EU without any deal

Given the delays ratifying the EU-Canada deal, which got bogged down in the politics of the French-speaking part of Belgium, this is a daunting prospect.

The UK now needs to engage itself seriously with the complexities, trade-offs and compromises involved in a negotiated Brexit. It needs to educate public and parliamentary opinion about these

If the UK was wise, it would consider asking its EU partners to extend the negotiation time from two years, to (say) six years. That could be granted by unanimous agreement among the 27 EU states and Britain.

With a longer negotiation period, the UK would need no transition deal. The UK remains a member of the EU until the final exit deal has been done.

There would be only one deal to negotiate and ratify, not two. Of course, this would be difficult. There are really no good options here. It is a question of deciding which option is the least bad.

Lengthening the period to six years would allow the UK electorate to consider, in a more informed way, the full implications of the course they are following.

The present tight time frame minimises the opportunity for creative thought and maximises the influence of blind bureaucratic and political forces. It increases the likelihood of miscalculation.

There is little sign that the current UK government, the originator of Brexit, sees the dilemma. It needs to radically reframe the question and change the context in which it is to be answered, if it wants a Brexit that does the least damage to Britain and to Europe.

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