Almost nine months after Theresa May triggered the two-year Article 50 process for negotiating Britain’s departure from the European Union (and eighteen months after the referendum), negotiations on ‘transition’ and the post-Brexit relationship between Britain and the EU are finally about to start.
As things stand Britain will leave the EU on 30 March, 2019. But what will we know about the final terms of Brexit at that point? Very little, because, following the agreement between the EU27 and Britain painfully arrived at in December last year, 2018 will be spent negotiating the Withdrawal Agreement.
This will include the arrangements for the ‘transition’ period after 29 March 2019 and an ‘overall understanding on a framework for the future relationship’ between Britain and the EU27.
The substance of that relationship, including trading relations, will only be addressed after 29 March 2019 – when Britain will be outside the EU. So even if the British Parliament gets a “meaningful vote” on the draft Withdrawal Agreement, they will not be voting on anything like a final Brexit deal.
Very little time is available to negotiate the Withdrawal Agreement, and we can expect considerable difficulties along the way. The EU27 set out in the Phase 1 agreement and their revised Negotiating Guidelines a clear statement of what the arrangements for the transition will be. Much of it is anathema to hard-line Brexiters in the May government.
Even translating the Phase 1 agreement into a legal form, which the EU27 insist is a priority, will be problematic as the terms of the agreement are interpreted very differently within the May cabinet.
We can expect these negotiations to go down to the wire in October 2018, the date Michel Barnier has said is the deadline for the draft agreement to give sufficient time for the member states, the Council, the European Parliament and the British Parliament to ratify the Agreement.
Given the time frame and complexity, an increasing number of commentators are arguing that ‘transition’ is a bad idea and that the focus should instead be on extending the Article 50 negotiating period. The time spent negotiating transition arrangements, which will only last for 20 months, would be better spent on the substance of the future relationship.
Secondly, transition will be the status quo without democratic representation; Britain will probably remain in the single market and customs union with the four freedoms, continue to pay into the EU budget, be subject to the European Court of Justice. It will have no vote, and will be a rule-taker rather than a rule-maker.
Third, arrangements for the transition will be complex and messy, something which so far has been underestimated. They will have to work out how Britain relates to the EU institutions while outside the EU. More importantly, Britain will simply fall out of around 750 trade and other agreements that the EU has with non-EU countries.
But ‘transition’ is a spectacularly bad idea mainly because it is a one-way street: it means that Britain leaves the EU on 30 March, 2019 well before the terms of the final Brexit settlement are known.
The British people and the political authorities will be denied the opportunity to reflect properly on the political and practical implications of the final Brexit arrangement and whether it is really in the interests of the country.
This is very important. Many British people, roughly half the population and most businesses, think that the Brexit decision was wrong. There is reason to believe that it will both damage the UK and weaken the EU, and encourage the emerging nationalist trends observed across several countries in the world.
It may lead to the break-up of the UK; Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. Moreover, there are signs that the British people are beginning to have second thoughts on the matter.
This is not so much evidenced by people openly admitting they have changed their minds, but rather by the growing numbers who think that Brexit is going to be a bad deal, and would like a second referendum to be held, now that the full consequences of Brexit are becoming clearer.
Extending the Article 50 period would keep options open for a longer period as the final Brexit terms become clearer. It has the enormous advantage of giving the British people, and the British government, the time to reflect on the Brexit decision and, if so inclined, to abandon Brexit altogether.
It would require the unanimous approval of all the member states, and so far neither side seems inclined to propose it. True, there are practical and political problems in extending the negotiation period, the implications for the European Parliament elections in June 2019 and the negotiations on the EU budget 2021-27. These matters, however, are soluble and much less problematic than those of ‘transition’.
It seems unlikely that the current UK government would propose an extension to Article 50 instead of ‘transition’. But, if the EU27 were, at an appropriate moment, to make such a proposal there is a good chance that the British Parliament would insist on the UK government accepting it, if only to avoid all the problems discussed above.
But this requires unanimity on the part of all the member states. So as well as blogging and tweeting in a UK bubble, we must turn our attention to persuading the Europeans that an extension of Article 50 is also in their interests.
By John Speed and Stephen McCarthy, former officials of respectively the European Court of Auditors and the European Investment Bank.