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Analysis

Why can’t May be honest that EU trade deal will take ages?

by Hugo Dixon | 01.11.2017

The prime minister is clinging to the fiction that we can cut a free trade deal with the EU before we quit the club in March 2019. By pretending she can make the impossible happen, she’s messing up Brexit and damaging us all in the process.

Theresa May says again and again that she expects not just to agree divorce terms with the EU before we leave, but that she will clinch a spanking new trade deal as well. This is despite the fact that the EU hasn’t even started discussing trade with us. And that the sort of deep comprehensive trade deal she wants will take many years to negotiate. And that such a deal would then need to be ratified by the other 27 countries’ parliaments – a process that could take another year or so.

Put it all together and we are unlikely to have a trade deal up and running for another five years or more. The best we’ll get by March 2019 is the rough outline of a deal.

By pretending otherwise, May is asking for the wrong things in the Brexit talks. She says she wants a period of around two years to “implement” the free trade agreement (FTA) after we quit. What she should be asking for is a stay of execution while we nail down the details of an FTA, get it ratified and then implement it. She should also be asking for much more than around two years – because it’s pretty obvious that we’ll need a lot longer to do all these things.

The prime minister’s failure to be honest isn’t just undermining her credibility with our EU partners, which means they don’t treat her seriously. It is also undermining her credibility with business. Companies know she can’t deliver what she is promising and that, as a result, the economy is likely to fall off a cliff edge in 2021 when her “implementation period” comes to an end, assuming she gets one. It’s not surprising that investment is grinding to a halt and firms are close to activating plans to shift parts of their operations across the Channel so they can keep access to the EU’s vast market.

So why isn’t May fessing up? Probably because she knows that hardline Brexiters in her party, who aren’t even happy about a two-year transition, would go bananas if it was much longer. What’s more, we would still have to pay what we owe the EU – perhaps £40-50 billion – unless we are prepared to crash out of the club in a catastrophic acrimonious divorce. If she tries to shell out this sort of money without getting an FTA in return, the Brextremists may have her guts for garters.

The prime minister should be honest with the voters about what she is going to need to do to deliver Brexit. Yet again, she is putting her party’s interests above those of the country.

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Edited by Luke Lythgoe

2 Responses to “Why can’t May be honest that EU trade deal will take ages?”

  • May just bleats on, something like “help me”. Thinking the EU will propose a future relationship for her.

    No reason why they should. The EU is large enough to absorb the effects of Brexit, it is UK that must go begging for deal. And we don’t seem able to do that…

  • I read a French newspaper every day and there is seldom a mention of Brexit which tells you that they do not feel that Brexit is of any great importance to them despite the fact that we think that it is the top of everyone’s concerns and also the Washington Post when Brexit has hardly been referred to except that they are looking forward to invading the British Market particularly with agriculture and all that will do to British Agriculture and our standards.