Pre-Florence, talks with the EU were at a stalemate. When David Davis agreed to the EU’s proposed sequencing for the talks on day 1, we agreed that substantial progress on the issues of citizen’s rights, the divorce bill and the Irish border must be made before talks could move on to the matter of our ongoing trade relationship with the EU. The speech itself offered very little except overlong platitudes; the detail could have been summarised in a few bullet points. A promise was made that Britain would pay its outstanding financial contributions – a good move, and that we would continue to make payments to the EU budget during a transition period. What May suggested was a transition period of two years following our official exit in March 2019, in which the status-quo relationship would be maintained exactly. We leave, but we continue to pay so that everything remains the same. May also went the extra step of stipulating that we do not seek any kind of existing arrangement – not EEA/EFTA, not CETA, not Switzerland, but something entirely bespoke and just for us.
Quite how the cabinet arrived at the conclusion that this position makes any sense escapes me. First of all, the EU has told us that we cannot retain all the benefits of the single market without also keeping its commitments whilst not being a member of the Union. The government has conceded this point multiple times, but now that is exactly what we ask for. It isn’t just that the EU is playing hardball with this either, it is a position which is legally unprecedented and would create massive problems for the EU, all countries which have agreements with the EU, and the WTO. Secondly, it was reiterated in the speech and again multiple times at the Tory conference that we are still going to leave both the customs union and the single market in March 2019. Yet, May asks for a transition period in which nothing changes. It isn’t going to happen.
Let’s compare what we have asked for to two other strategies: Staying in the EU past 2019, and relying on membership of the EEA and EFTA for a transition period or longer. As members of the EU, nothing would change, like May has asked for, and we would still be able to influence the EU from within. As members of the EEA and EFTA, we would remain members of the single market but would only be accepting around a quarter of the EU’s rules, would no longer be subjected to the political union, would be able strike trade deals with other countries, and would take seats on global trade and regulation bodies, influencing the future of the single market from there. What May is asking for is that we continue to be subjected to all of the EU’s rules, but from outside the EU with no influence whatsoever and nothing gained on the global stage. We have voluntarily asked of the EU that we be put into the most subservient position anybody could imagine. Not only this, it is a position that would have to be completely bespoke, and is thoroughly at odds with the realities of how international law and trade works. We are asking to negotiate from scratch, at enormous expense, a position that is worse in every way than staying in the EU or any of the other options available to us.
Taking a slight step back, the idea of a transition period in itself is problematic for the government, because it implies a transition to a different state. The way the government has approached this is to lock us into two sets of negotiations – one for the transition period itself, and another for whatever it is we will be transitioning to. I’ve addressed the fact that what we are trying to negotiate for the transition itself is impossible and totally unnecessary, but then the plan is to negotiate the most comprehensive bespoke FTA the EU has ever attempted - much more so than the recent deals with Canada or South Korea, and by limiting the length of the transition we are once again making this a time-limited issue with a countdown clock.
Just to summarise what we have so far, we are asking to move to position which is demonstrably worse than being in the EU or any of the other options available, is legally unworkable and crosses the EUs red lines (and arguably our own); and once in this position we are asking to do something which may also be impossible and took something like 9 years the last time the EU did it, and we are setting ourselves a two-year time limit within which to do this or we exit without a deal. We are choosing two time-limited rounds of negotiations, in which to negotiate things that we have been told we cannot have when there are much better options available. As somebody put it on twitter: “this is like somebody dying for a pint at closing time, but refusing to go into the Weatherspoon’s in front of them because it isn’t bespoke enough”.
I have said before that the Article 50 negotiation period is not meant to be used for negotiating anything more than a formal exit from the EU, which could be done in a number of ways with relatively little disruption. Instead, the government is choosing the worst possible position, and is choosing the most difficult possible route to that destination, putting the risk of failure or humiliation as high as it could realistically be. Whatever your thoughts on Brexit, we are handling this about as badly as is possible in absolutely every single dimension.
Those in charge know this, and they are beginning to squirm. Realising this predicament, there is now an effort by the government and Brexit-at-all-costs leavers to paint the EU as the evil enemy, and in turn to absolve themselves of any blame when this all goes wrong, or any embarrassment if it doesn’t happen at all. This week we hear once again that plans are being made for a no-deal Brexit, leavers like John Redwood are back on the screens telling us there is nothing to fear from no deal, and textbook free-trade advocates are back demonstrating that they have no idea how modern trade works in reality.
Yet again the rhetoric is woven through that any harm caused would be something that the EU has done to us. This is a fundamental and dangerous misapprehension: any tariffs, non-tariff barriers, break down of established systems etc. will be things that we have done to ourselves, entirely of our own volition. The arrogance in ignorance has never been more palpable. I cannot think of a single prominent leave supporter or MP that has come out to criticise how the government is handling this, which is simply astonishing. Any criticism of our strategy, or any implication that we may be at fault rather than them, is “doing Britain down”.
Now we find ourselves in a situation where our government looks on the verge of falling apart over this, and the threat of a general election once again hangs in the air. It is becoming more and more obvious that a significant change in both strategy and approach is needed, and it looks like the only way that this might occur is for something big to happen in Whitehall. Unless something changes, my honest opinion is that we will essentially have to be rescued, Brexit won’t happen at all, Britain will be humiliated on a historic scale, the conservatives damaged beyond repair, and trust in the British political system will fall to crisis levels. If we choose to not do this rather than be forced into the decision some of the damage would be mitigated. If we exit without a deal, it will be our fault and things would be much worse.
I want to finish this by saying that I am not having a go at the people who voted to put us on this ship, I am having a go at the people at the helm. I know that many people who voted leave would agree with everything I have said here, and that what we see of leavers and remainers on TV is far from representative of the range of viewpoints in either camp. Criticism of the government’s approach to Brexit should never be taken as a criticism of somebody’s personal views or reasons for voting, and certainly should not be considered to be “doing Britain down”. The moment that these things are conflated is the moment that democracy will truly be at risk.
Brexit is absolutely possible to achieve without massive disruption, as is remaining in the EU with some of our reputation intact. The path we are currently following however, as dictated by the Conservative government and only pathetically questioned by their opposition, is the worst of all possible worlds, and should be criticised by people all sides of the Brexit spectrum. Unless something big happens and the course is changed, there will be big scary things lurking just over the horizon for many years to come.