Theresa May has set a date for triggering Article 50, but the EU should now scrap its policy of no negotiation before notification because of the complexity and herculean nature of the task ahead, argues Mikkel Barslund.
Mikkel Barslund is a research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS).
By announcing she will invoke Article 50 at the latest by the end March next spring, Theresa May is widely thought to have made a fundamental strategic mistake when it comes to the exit negotiations. As the story goes, Britain has forfeited the last element of control it could hope to exercise over the negotiation process: the ability to determine the moment when negotiations start.
But given the bravado shown in other parts of her speech to conservative MPs on Sunday, Theresa May probably begs to differ.
In any case, EU institutions and member states should now abandon their ‘no-negotiation-before-Article-50-trigger’ rhetoric. This might have served the purpose of avoiding endless probes into the possible limits on the kind of restrictions the EU would be willing to accept on free movements, while allowing Britain to retain access to the single market. It is also conceivable that the ‘no-negotiation’ stance served the purpose of holding the EU27 bloc together.
With this first bit of uncertainty now resolved, all efforts must now be devoted to negotiating a good outcome – for both sides. Everyone acknowledges that a two-year negotiation process is far too short. And the final exit deal, if one emerges, has to be approved by a qualified majority of remaining EU member states – a condition that is unlikely to speed up the process. Thus, a six-month head start is more than welcome.
What, then, about the argument often made – implicitly, if not explicitly – in Brussels and beyond, that Britain should be dealt a ‘tough’ deal as a precautionary warning to other remaining governments to keep nationalist/populist movements at bay? That Brexit must showcase the (economic and political) dangers of leaving. Keeping the window of negotiation open for two years only serves this purpose well.
This line of thought was always problematic. To appreciate its frailty, just imagine the kind of Brexit agreement (and political aftermath) that would persuade the Front National to reverse its position on a Frexit vote. Yes, such harshness from the EU is hard to fathom.
And what kind of economic doom should be spelt on Britain to stem the rise of movements such as the right-wing AfD (Alternative für Deutschland)? Not to mention the more philosophical issue of the prospect of the EU becoming a Union where its members stay only because they do not dare to leave.
Perhaps declaring a willingness to open negotiations – informally, if necessary for judicial reasons – immediately can strengthen the positions of the few remaining British conservatives who have taken a softer approach towards Brexit. Britain dug itself in deep on 23 June. The remaining EU27 countries should not aim to dig the hole any deeper.
Of course, the EU must maintain its founding principles of the four freedoms, which means you cannot have one’s cake and eat it too. But such a stance need not imply a choice between the ‘Norwegian model’ and ‘no model’.
Instead, the EU and member states should aim at concluding an interim trade agreement until Britain has negotiated membership of the WTO; a process which can take years. If the hard Brexiteers demand a clean break from the EU then that is what will happen. But it is in nobody’s interest to force such an outcome.
An economically weak Britain can never be in the short-term nor the long-term interest of the EU27. It is bad economics – and bad politics.