Theresa May’s promise that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ sounds, as the Washington Post’s Sebastian Mallaby pointed out, a bit like telling a toddler that ‘bedtime means bedtime’. There will be a bedtime. But as every parent, aunt, uncle, godparent or babysitter experiences at some point it’s never clear when, where and how bedtime will happen. Even the possibility that Brexit might now mean ‘hard Brexit’ – straight to bed without supper and a story – throws up a host of complex problems.
As has become apparent since the 23 June vote, Brexit is not going to be a process that is easy to define, implement and put to bed. And it is not a process we can examine only from Britain’s perspective. Brexit is a series of interconnected negotiations, debates and votes that is, for some, potentially open-ended and which will change the whole of Europe. This is not to over complicate Brexit. If anything, by breaking it down into its component parts we can clarify our understanding of it and better appreciate who the various players will be, what their playing fields will be and therefore who more than anyone else will shape Brexit and its wider effects.
We are now witnessing thirteen negotiations and debates that can be divided into three groups, summarised in the tables below. The first group of negotiations are taking place within the UK and are largely about defining what the British people’s vote to leave implies for the Brexit policy to be pursued by HM Government.
The second set of negotiations are between the UK and the EU and cover not only the exit agreement, but a new post-withdrawal relationship (including the most basic of all, the WTO option), a possible deal for a transition between the two, and the need to find ways forward in areas of mutual interest such as foreign, security and defence matters. Everything hangs on what the EU will agree to. So far the EU has made clear it will face the UK as a united bloc and defend its core policies, but sustaining this will be a task in itself.
The final group of negotiations will be amongst the remaining Members of the EU, a development that until recently was with only a few exceptions almost entirely overlooked in debates about Brexit in both the UK and the rest of the EU. As shown by the Bratislava summit, the remaining EU Members have to reach agreement over what deal to offer the departing UK. They will also have to manage a changed balance of power within a Union wrestling with a series of other challenges such as those facing the Eurozone and the EU’s place in Europe and the wider world.
Brexit is testing the robustness of both the UK and the EU as political unions, and threatens both the EU’s notion of ‘ever closer union’ and the idea of Britain as a great power. The time available for negotiations is limited by the domestic, political, legal and economic demands facing both sides. Extending the time available will lessen any potential for Brexit to become a crisis, albeit at the risk of triggering a backlash from those who would like to see the process happen quicker whatever the cost.
All sides are in the early stages of feeling their way forward with an unprecedented problem. The potential for unexpected surprises somewhere along the way in one of the above negotiations, for example, a vote in a parliament or a legal challenge could disrupt the entire process.
Tim Oliver is a Dahrendorf Fellow at LSE IDEAS and a Visiting Scholar at New York University. This post summarises evidence submitted by Dr Oliver to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee and his article ‘The world after Brexit: From British referendum to global adventure’ recently published in the journal International Politics.