John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

TIME LIMITS RISK A BREXIT CRASH

RIGID TIMELINES COULD LEAD TO A BREXIT DISASTER…..SCOPE AND TIME FOR CREATIVE THINKING NEEDED

In his book “Fateful Choices”, which describes how country after country tumbled into what became the Second World War, the British historian, Ian Kershaw wrote

“The fateful choices that were made were not predetermined or axiomatic. But they did reflect the sort of political system that produced them.”.

A Global War was not anyone’s preferred option, but a combination of ideology, a fear of being encircled or pre empted, and miscalculation of the intentions or reactions of others, gave the world the most destructive war in human history.

Similar blind forces are in play in the Brexit negotiation.

The current UK political system, and the anxieties and obsessions it has generated, determine the UK position on Brexit.

This expresses itself in an artificially inflexible, and brittle, interpretation of the meaning of the 2016 Referendum result.  

The UK Government has so far been unable to convert that into a detailed, legally viable, and constructive, outline of its desired future relationship with the EU.

If it got into detail, the disagreement between Cabinet members is so deep that the Conservative Party would split and the Government would fall. The Labour opposition has a similar problem.

It suits both of them that the EU side in the negotiation is insisting that substantial progress must be made on other issues, before negotiations about the future relations between the EU and the UK begin, because if the UK Government had to set out a detailed position on the future relationship, it is liable to split. UK party and public opinion has been polarised and is unready for compromise. The Conservative Party is consumed with its leadership struggle and cannot be relied upon to make a deal that will stick. The Foreign Secretary’s four ”red lines” make compromise impossible.

Likewise the EU political system determines the EU’s approach. There is quite understandable annoyance that the UK, for whom so many special deals were made in the past, now wants to leave the Union it freely joined over 40 years ago. The EU negotiating position is necessarily inflexible because it has to be determined by 27 countries. It can only be changed by consensus among them, and that can only be arrived at very slowly.

Yet the time limit set in Article 50 of the EU Treaty is very short. It will require immense speed of negotiation, on a vast range of difficult questions, not only between the EU and the UK, but also potentially with the World Trade Organisation and perhaps with EFTA, which the UK would have to join if it wants to be in the European Economic Area, like Norway. All this will have to be done between January and November of 2018.

Both sides in this negotiation should ask themselves this question……Are they at risk of finding themselves on rigid tramlines, heading straight for a cliff, and if so, should some rail sidings be put in place, into which the two trains might pull, for a moment of reflection, before they go over the edge in March 2019?

A  former Judge in the European Court of Justice, Franklin Dehousse recently  argued that separating  trade issues from those concerning the  Irish border  artificially disconnected connected topics, and thus  limited the possibility of constructive tradeoffs.  

But he also insisted that the UK must first come up with “precise proposals on all withdrawal matters”.  

He is right. There is no point in the UK asking for the EU to move on to trade matters,  unless and until the UK itself is capable of spelling  out in substantial detail  what it wants, and says exactly what  trade, environmental, and consumer safety policies it will follow post Brexit. It is because the UK is unable even to say what it wants, in the long term, on these issues, that there has been no progress on discussing Irish border issues.

Meanwhile  the UK Trade Policy Observatory (UKTPO), in an article by Professors Alan Winters, Peter Holmes and Erika Szyscak, has suggested that Theresa May’s idea of a “transition” or “implementation” period of two years, after the UK had left the EU, might be very difficult to implement. If so, the UK will crash out of the EU in March 2019.

They saw several problems with Theresa May’s transition idea. They are not trivial issues..

One was that, when the UK leaves the EU in March 2019, it will also be automatically out of the EU Customs Union too. Therefore they claimed it would have to negotiate a new temporary Customs Union with the EU, for the transition period. It would have to notify the WTO of this new temporary Customs Union, which could potentially lead to protracted negotiations with WTO partners.

The UK and EU would also have to agree on how all EU Regulations and Directives would apply in the UK during the transition period, with complete certainty on how mutual recognition of testing and certification,  and the free mobility of labour, would work.

According to the UKTPO authors, the status of such an agreement under EU law would not be certain, but because it would cover issues on which EU member states retain competence. This might mean that the transition agreement itself might require ratification by all EU member states too. That would take time, and meanwhile the UK and its EU trade partners would be in limbo. The UK might be already out of the EU,  while its transition deal had not yet been ratified and was inoperable.

Given the delays ratifying the EU/Canada deal, which got bogged down in the politics of the French speaking part of Belgium, this is a daunting prospect.

Imagine going through all that for deal that might only last two years, and then going through the same process ALL OVER AGAIN for the final deal!  

So negotiating and ratifying a transition deal could be almost as difficult as negotiating the final permanent deal!

The UK needs to engage itself seriously with the complexities of Brexit.  If it looks at all these complexities thoroughly, sense is that it may then conclude that, despite Boris Johnson’s anxiety to leave quickly, the time limits are far too severe and that more time is needed.

If the UK was wise, it would ask its EU partners to extend the negotiation time from two years, to (say) six years.  That extension of the negotiating period could be done by unanimous agreement among the 27 EU states and Britain.

With a longer negotiation period, the UK would need no transition deal and would remain a member of the EU, until the final exit deal was done. There would be only one deal to negotiate and ratify, the final deal.

There are really no good options here.

.It would be politically difficult for any UK government to ask for an extension of the negotiation time. “Leave” supporters would suspect betrayal.  There would be very deep reluctance on the EU side to grant such a request.. Some EU states would feel that extending the period was being far too easy on the UK, and that the UK needed a reality check.  Others would argue prolongation of the exit negotiation might destabilise other EU members, and distract the EU from other urgent work.

These are valid objections, but they are arguably less damaging than the real likelihood that the UK will crash out of the EU without any deal.

Lengthening the period to six years would, however, allow the UK electorate to consider, in a more informed way, the full implications of the course they are following.

The present tight time frame minimises the opportunity for creative thought.

Instead, it maximises the influence of blind bureaucratic and political forces.

It increases the likelihood of miscalculation, and of the UK leaving the EU with no deal at all. That would be very bad for Ireland, or for the EU as a whole.

 I hope more negotiating time can be agreed.  If not, the tempo of the negotiation must be immediately and dramatically increased.

Unfortunately, there is little sign that the current UK government, the originator of Brexit, sees this.

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1 Comment

  1. Padraic O'Neill

    John,

    I read an article in “The Globalist” recommending your analysis and suggestion, and looked for your original blog. Your setting of the decision making environment in the context of 1939/40 is perceptive. I agree with your reading of the situation in Westminster. I watched Theresa May emerge from dinner last night in Brussels with a sense of deja-vu. It was reminiscent of Chamberlain’s return from Munich in 1938. How long can the middle ground in British politics stand idly by as the ship of state heads for the rocks? It can only be a matter of little time before May or Hammond make a mistake that will precipitate a leadership heave that will either solve or exacerbate the situation, maybe the upcoming budget?

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