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Expert View

Business most unlikely to get a quick, simple transition

by David Hannay | 30.10.2017

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

It is easy, sometimes at least, to feel sorry for Theresa May as she tries to lead her obstreperous team of cabinet and party colleagues through the complexities of the Brexit negotiations. That is, when she is not the author of her own misfortunes: as, for example, when she continues to assert, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that the new partnership deal with the EU will be done and dusted by this time next year; or when she insists on using the gobbledygook phrase “implementation phase” for what is more accurately described as a “transitional period” or, more clearly than even that, as a “standstill”.

Just over a month ago the prime minister set out in Florence a coherent and compelling case for transitional arrangements running for “around two years” from March 2019, during which not very much would change except that by then the UK would be outside the EU and would have become a rule-taker rather than a rule-maker. So far, so simple.

But within days her foreign secretary had popped up and said the transitional period could not be a second longer than two years. How on earth could he have reached that conclusion when he cannot get his mind round the detail of what is involved? And, even more damagingly, he invented a red line all of his own excluding any EU measures taken during that period, whether legislative or regulatory, from applying in the UK – a simple recipe for that regulatory divergence between us and the other EU countries which is anathema to our negotiating partners.

And now we are told the government doesn’t want the transitional arrangements to apply to agriculture and fisheries. Since exit day is now 17 months away and no clear indications of what Britain’s new agricultural and fisheries policies have been shared with Parliament, the devolved administrations which are responsible for them, or the public, this claim lacks credibility, to put it mildly. It is also likely to be seen by the other EU countries as a prime example of cherry-picking, particularly as Michael Gove, the environment secretary, seems intent on not only removing the access to our waters under the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy but also the historic rights which some of the other member states had before we even joined the European Communities in 1973.

We do not know yet how the other 27 countries will react to the prime minister’s proposals for a transition but we soon shall, as they are now working out their position on it and Brussels leaks like a sieve. But it is not rocket science to guess what it is likely to be: a fixed time limit, maintenance of the four freedoms and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, remaining within the Customs Union and the Single Market regulatory framework. That could be consistent with May’s approach but not with the views subsequently aired by her colleagues.

Businesses in Britain are crying out for a quick, simple and straightforward deal on these transitional arrangements. They will almost certainly be disappointed. The discussion is likely to get bogged down into a mass of confrontational detail, complicated by the government’s inability to present a united front.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon