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Expert View

4 Brexit loose ends government yet to tie

by David Hannay | 05.04.2018

David Hannay is a member of the House of Lords and former UK ambassador to the EU and UN.

We are in a lull. Parliament has risen for its Easter recess and the negotiations over the UK’s post-Brexit end state are yet to really get under way. It therefore makes sense to look at the loose ends left untied, now that the broad basis of the divorce settlement and the 21-month standstill transition have been agreed. And there are plenty of those loose ends; indeed there is little but loose ends, and few indications from the government on how and when they think they should be tied up.

Transition to where?

The most obvious loose end is the patent inadequacy of the duration of the standstill period. From one end of Europe to the other there are vanishingly few people who consider that it will be feasible to negotiate the details of the new relationship and have them in force by New Year’s Day 2021. Even the government knows the period is inadequate since it asked for longer.

And then, what? Do we go over the cliff edge, only to scramble back a few years later when a full deal is concluded – precisely that double shock which business fears the most and which will be the most damaging to our economy and to inward investment?

It was remarkably irresponsible of the government to agree to 21 months without making any provision for the possible future extension of the standstill, which could be needed to avoid a cliff edge. But then the ultra-Brexiters would not have stood for that. As usual, they got their way.

Ireland & Gibraltar

Then there are the complexities of Ireland and Gibraltar. The government still seems to hope that some technological magic carpet will materialise and waft us all over a control-free border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. But their resistance to the backstop arrangement which was reached last December leaves one in doubt that they have much confidence that the magic carpet, the design of which they are remarkably coy about, will actually turn up in time.

As to Gibraltar, the government does nothing but breathe defiance towards Spain, irrespective of the fact that the whole underpinning of Gibraltar’s relationship within the EU will vanish when we leave and need to be replaced. Sooner or later the government will need to engage in a serious discussion with Spain about our mutual interest in avoiding a last minute crisis.

Customs union & single market

One crucial loose end results from the decision to rule out remaining in the customs union and the single market beyond the transitional period, a decision for which the government has no mandate either from the referendum or from Parliament. That decision is going to be tested in the months to come both in Parliament and in the Brexit negotiations – and it is notable that the EU 27 have, in their negotiating guidelines, left the door open to adjusting their position on trade should these unwise red lines show signs of fading.

When the full cost to our economy and our trade with our largest trading partner of maintaining those red lines becomes clearer, common sense may make a belated appearance. But the government’s hard-line supporters will do everything to prevent that, or at least to obfuscate until their main objective of leaving the EU on March 29 2019 is secured.

A new migration regime

The last loose end, by no means the least, is immigration, which is now apparently to be left over until after the die is cast in this year’s negotiation over the framework for a new relationship. A bit odd, you might think, since the Leave campaign reiterated constantly that ridding ourselves of free movement was a fundamental reason for quitting the EU – “ taking back control of our borders “ as they called it.

Now we will have 21 months more of free movement during the transitional period and then a mystery. Meanwhile immigration from the EU is dropping steadily and the pain is being felt right across the economy, from the NHS to our universities and the need for seasonal agricultural workers. It hardly bolsters the case for leaving in the first place.

With little more than six months to go before Parliament is asked to decide on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, that leaves an awful lot of loose ends untied. If the government cannot tie them up to Parliament’s satisfaction, then they should not be surprised if the result is seriously in doubt.

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Edited by Luke Lythgoe

6 Responses to “4 Brexit loose ends government yet to tie”

  • We need an escape plan, rather than everyone going down with the ship. The EU could help by devising a lifeline programme to re-establish Britain in some currently underpopulated EU country. New Oxford, New Cambridge, New London, New Wigan

  • Who are the powerful pro brexit people and why are a relatively few individuals steer a country of 65,000,000 off the cliff? Is there not enough sanity in the country to stop them?

  • The third is the obvious (and only) solution to the first and second, and will determine the fourth by default. A Norway-plus arrangement (single market participation and a customs treaty that binds UK to the EU customs union) is necessary and inevitable from 1 Jan 2021 extending indefinitely. Face saving language on leaving this arrangement to allow regulatory divergence or future trade deals could be included as an adornment, but would never be activated in practice. Norway-plus recreates the most of the privileges and obligations of the EU, but without a seat at the table. It is the least-worst damage limitation approach and will eventually make the case for rejoining.

    The main question is when Ministers realise this or are prepared to admit it publicly. Then we will discover if the red line really is a line and if it is red. Their path to date is strewn with abandoned promises and compromised postures. Despite all their pomp and swagger, each time the Brexit ultras have gone into battle with reality there has only ever been one winner.

  • I believe anything will be possible when you have formally left next spring. Even some kind of free movement. Hope EU refuses…
    On a different subject, I noticed that one often used election poster in Victor Orban’s Hungary is a close similitude of the one that won independence for you. I mean the one with a river of illegal Muslims streaming into the country. Someone should tip off our Donald.

  • From talking to my friends it seems that Theresa May has one attribute in common with Tony Blair. ‘Teflon’ Theresa and ‘Teflon’ Tony – no bad news seems to stick to them. To be fair though, Theresa does have the Tory press helping her greatly. Theresa has her own Brexit Impact report giving dire warnings of the effect of Brexit on the economy. This she has chosen to ignore, just as she ignores business leaders imploring her to stay in the Customs Union, or the Single Market, or preferably both. You may question economic predictions as Project Fear predicted our economy falling off the cliff edge should the vote go against Remain. We know that we suffered a 20% devaluation against the Euro and now our country’s GDP growth is the lowest in the EU. Alright, not a cliff edge, just a very steep downward slope!
    No wonder almost half (46%) of Tory voters think we should have another referendum with all the new information that we now have and the length of time it has taken for Theresa May to get precisely nowhere in her negotiations with the EU. These same Tory voters (60% in London) also believe that MPs should have a free vote on any final deal and should vote for country, not party. They also want that ‘Remain in the EU’ should be one of the options available. Perhaps after the local elections next month we shall have a clearer view of the road ahead.
    I believe that in a democracy people should be able to change their minds – otherwise there would never be a change in the governing party. I further believe that the voters have got so much a clearer picture of the overall negative effect of Brexit on Britain that a second referendum is vital. Otherwise the country will remain hopelessly divided and Theresa May’s name will be mud as the job losses due to Brexit continue, the pound continues its nosedive and our economic growth continues to stagnate. Sorry to sound so negative, but truth will out ad the sooner we put Brexit into reverse the better.

  • The government says that there are enough policemen, but why are burglaries and acts of violent crime going thru the roof? Senior police officers report chronic underfunding as do teachers and senior NHS leaders.
    The Conservatives have been in power long enough to have at least started to rectify these problems. That they haven’t is reason enough for throwing them out of office. While in office they have overseen an ever widening gap between the haves and the have-nots and between the north and the south. They have been driven by about 50 right-wingers who want Brexit at any cost. These people have no concern for our economy now languishing at the bottom or the consequent job losses. The loss in tax revenue further inhibits the Tories addressing the above crises in our NHS, Education, Police and also in our Infrastructure.
    As long as the Rees-Moggs, etc get their Brexit they feel it would have been with it – but do you? You can either sit quiet or go out and vote against this party controlled by its crazy right-wing with a weak leader. Go out and vote in May and whenever the General Election occurs.