Brexit becomes reality
Since her accession as Prime Minister, Theresa May has achieved the remarkable feat of keeping the public, her government and her party together on Brexit. A firm ‘Brexit means Brexit’ line, tempered only mildly by reassuring noises about the UK’s commitment to a strong Europe, has seen her achieve and maintain a commanding poll lead, secure broad support across the Conservative party and, as research company Britain Thinks found in a recent survey, she is seen as the person most likely to deliver the aspirations of all but the most pro-EU ‘devastated pessimists’.
It is difficult to see it lasting. The delivery of the Article 50 letter to European Council President Donald Tusk signals the start of some of the most important and far-reaching negotiations the UK has ever conducted. The result will shape the country, its economy and demography for decades to come. In these difficult circumstances, the Government and Number 10’s optimism is remarkable. They believe they will secure an agreement – ‘absolutely essential’ according to one senior government official – and do so in the two year period. There will be a transition and the UK will have to pay a substantial amount of money into EU coffers to settle the bill (though it will be substantially less than the 60 billion euros suggested by the Commission). But it will involve compromises – signalled this morning – on greater security co-operation, the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (particularly over single market issues) and on free movement.
The softer messaging contrasts with the official government line that the UK is prepared to walk away from the negotiations if the deal isn’t right. To that end, Whitehall departments have been instructed to assume that there is no deal at the end of the two year process and create arrangements to ensure that trade can continue. For example, HMRC is assessing investment requirements at UK borders to make import and export flows continue as smoothly as possible. This is sensible precautionary planning, but it is also a negotiating tactic in signalling to the Commission and Council that the UK really can live without an agreement if absolutely necessary. It was also notable in May’s letter that she linked entering WTO tariffs with weakened UK security cooperation; a point which is sure to be used repeatedly through the negotiations.
The negotiation challenges are made more complex by May having to manage parliament and her own party. The previous rhetoric of not giving a running commentary on the negotiations has all but disappeared. Ministers now recognise that parliament and the media will demand involvement and consultation. Besides, it is clear that given the multitude of different actors in Europe – Commission, Council, Parliament, Member States – leaks, discussion and debate are inevitable. The Commission’s negotiators have already signalled that they will; encourage a strong degree of ‘transparency’ around the negotiations, which is clearly designed to protect their own position in relation to scrutiny from the remaining member states.
In addition, the Prime Minster will need to maintain and ongoing and difficult relationship with UK devolved administrations. Despite having voted for a second independence referendum this week, the Scottish Parliament will still push for maximum consultation as the Brexit negotiations proceed. Wales and Northern Ireland will demand involvement too. None of this can be assumed to take place behind closed doors. With the White Paper on the Great Repeal Bill due to be published tomorrow, there is ample scope for open constitutional arguments – especially if there is any sense that the national institutions are not being included in decisions on matters that are formally devolved to them.
A balancing act
In the UK, the Brexit-supporting media and hardline Eurosceptics will be on the look-out for the slightest sign of sell-out to Brussels. But the majority of Conservative MPs are not hardline. Most are either mildly Eurosceptic who are optimistic about the future, or accepting Remainer pragmatists who want to make the best of the future. In the last few days, Labour’s shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer finally seems to have found a formulation – his six tests – that unites his own warring party and could yet provide a banner behind which moderate Remainers could rally if the Government moves too far in the hard Brexit direction. That is the balancing act the PM has to perform – appealing to the pragmatic, centrist majority in parliament and in the country that accepts Brexit but wants to keep the best features of the previous 40 years of membership of the Union.
Article 50: Dates for the diary
Thursday: Government is expected to publish a white paper on the Great Repeal Bill
Friday: Donald Tusk will send a ten-page “guidelines” document to 27 EU capitals. This will form the basis for the divorce settlement
April 29th: The European Council will meet for their first official Brexit summit, at which they will formally adopt the guidelines
Early May: Negotiations between David Davis and Michel Barnier likely to begin
May 7th: Likely second round of the French Presidential elections
May 17th: Queen’s Speech, which will include the Great Repeal Bill and a number of other Brexit-related pieces of legislation
June 22nd: First meeting between May and EU leaders
September 24th: German elections
December: Potential agreement of ‘divorce’ settlement
October 2018: The date by which Michel Barnier wants a Brexit deal reached