From the moment Theresa May announced her intention to trigger Article 50, it’s been clear that we were in a race against time. But few seem to realize that we have less than two months in which to land the most important and complex deal in our post-war history.
The reality is that the British government has six weeks to decide on the basic model that will define the shape and nature of U.K.-EU relations for generations to come.
And it has six weeks to wake up to the stark reality that the only viable option for our future relationship with the EU is to opt for membership of the European Economic Area.
Once the EU27 agree on negotiating guidelines for the next phase — on the future relationship — in late March, there can be no turning back. Because if there’s one thing we’ve learned about EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier over the last 18 months or so, it’s that he is a man who does not deviate from his marching orders.
The U.K. government missed its chance to influence the EU27 ahead of Phase 1 because of May’s decision to hold a snap election. David Davis then spent the first phase of the Brexit talks pleading for flexibility from his counterpart and failing to get much, if any. The equivalent period for Phase 2 is right now.
The EU has made it crystal clear that the transition will be a carbon copy of the status quo, minus voting rights. In other words, the U.K. will have to accept all the rules and obligations of the customs union and the single market (including the free movement of labor), along with the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, for the entire duration of the transition.
The EU will not budge one inch on this. Why should it when the U.K. government has put absolutely no constructive alternative on the table?
I and others have pointed this out repeatedly to the prime minister and Brexit Secretary David Davis in the chamber, and we have repeatedly been given the usual disingenuous and blasé brush-off.
This is typical of the Conservative Party’s behavior is negotiations so far, in which it has relied on a blend of bluster and fantasy to act as a sticking plaster to hold the party together.
May and Davis have accepted the EU’s terms, thus placing themselves profoundly at odds with their parliamentary party, a majority of which have said they refuse to accept the continuation of single market obligations such as free movement of labor after March 29, 2019.
The terms of the transition period could therefore become the rock on which the entire Brexit process founders when parliament debates and votes on the EU (Withdrawal) Agreement in October.
And the government’s short-sightedness is obvious, yet again, in its insistence that we’ll have a comprehensive chapter and verse on the “future relationship” by the summer, thus transforming the transition phase into an implementation phase that will be all about simple delivery of the details set out in the Withdrawal Agreement.
Back on Planet Earth, meanwhile, Barnier has repeatedly made it clear that we must make a choice: Either we go for a free-trade agreement such as the one between the EU and Canada, or we go for the European Economic Area (EEA). Once we have that basic model agreed then there will be some scope during the transition phase to add to or subtract from it, but to all intents and purposes the choice will be binary.
This matters — for three key reasons. First, because the Canada model’s chapter on financial services is very limited and this is crucial, because 80 percent of the British economy is driven by the services sector.
Second, because the Canada model would leave us outside the customs union, which is incompatible with the government’s stated desire to retain a frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. And third, because nobody (including Mr. Davis himself, I suspect) has a clue what David Davis means when he talks about “Canada plus plus plus.”
It is vitally important, therefore, that both the government and the Labour Party clearly state that the EEA/EFTA is our preferred model for the future relationship.
The EEA/EFTA model offers the best possible terms of exit because it provides a high degree of access to the single market but allows for important differences that preserve Britain’s desire for self-determination.
The EEA, for example, ends the principle of direct effect and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (it is overseen, instead, by the EFTA Court, which frequently forges a different path to the ECJ). It also allows the U.K. to shape the rules of the shared aspects of the single market (studies have shown that only 10 percent of all EU rules apply to the EEA states). There is also a precedent for reforming the operation of free movement through the EEA Joint Committee, which Britain could do by triggering Articles 112 and 113 of the EEA Agreement.
The EEA/EFTA model also provides a solid basis upon which to negotiate a customs partnership between the U.K. and the EU, and would deliver the frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic that all parties are rightly committed to preserving.
Because the EEA/EFTA is a well-established and understood setup, it offers the added advantage of a relative painless transition. Imagine the relief with which such certainty and clarity would be greeted by the British business community.
To say that the clock is ticking would be the understatement of the century. The negotiating guidelines for future relationship talks are being drawn up as we speak, and yet the British government seems to be content to hide behind the sofa, mumbling about “Canada plus” and hoping those annoying Europeans will all just go away.
This is surely the most serious abdication of duty and responsibility by any British government in living memory.
Trade, jobs, national security, employment rights, human rights, peace in Northern Ireland, and our place in the world — all of these are hanging in the balance. We have six weeks to get our act together.
The U.K.’s future relationship with the EU is on a burning platform, and we have six short weeks to put out the fire.
I can only hope that the leaders of all our parties — in government and opposition — have grasped the need for speed, and for pragmatism.