It is easy to get impatient with the government’s snail-like progress towards triggering the start of the twin negotiations for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU and for the definition of a new, external relationship with our European partners. It is indeed a tedious wait for the ruling of the Supreme Court, for the government’s reaction to that ruling and for the tabling of its plan for the negotiations which it has now promised parliament .
Impatience is the watchword of the supporters of Brexit, many of whom campaigned for Britain simply to ignore its international legal obligations and walk away from the EU without more ado. They are now champing at the bit; and are preparing to cry betrayal at the slightest sign of moderation or compromise. The rest of us should surely be arguing for a calm and measured approach, with parliament being given time to debate the plan and any legislation the government brings forward, so that the government can get a clear picture of the sort of outcome that parliament might be prepared in due course to endorse.
Nothing would be more counter-productive than if the government were to rule out pre-emptively from the outset some of the main components of that new relationship which is by far the more important of the two negotiations we will be embarking on this spring. This is, after all, a complex negotiation between two parties, not a unilateral diktat; and ruling things in or out from the outset will only tempt the other side to do likewise, leading to a race to the bottom which will serve the interests of neither side.
Most importantly, the government needs to get off on the right, positive foot, by making it clear that we do not intend, for our part, to put forward anything to damage the interests or negatively affect the status of citizens of other EU member states already living and working here so long as our citizens abroad are similarly protected. The government should have given this unilateral undertaking long ago; but it is not too late to make up for lost time and to ensure, as the Prime Minister has said she wishes to do, that the legitimate concerns of all these European citizens on both sides are alleviated at an early stage in the negotiations.
And then the UK really does need to accentuate the positive a lot more effectively than it has done so far. In three important areas – justice, home affairs and internal security, foreign and international security policies and cooperation in scientific research and innovation – there is clearly a shared , mutual interest in sustaining and carrying forward into the future the highest possible degree of joint action. So, would it not make sense for the government already to be making clear that we will be hoping to establish a uniquely close relationship with the EU in all these policy areas? A full- throated commitment to these objectives would do much to create that essential component to any successful negotiation, a feeling of shared interest in its successful conclusion.
Will it be possible to complete the negotiations on the new relationship within the two year time limit provided under Article 50 for the withdrawal negotiations? Probably not. But it makes no sense at all to try now, before the negotiations have even started, to define what interim or transitional arrangements might be needed to avoid a “cliff edge” situation at the end of the two years. To do so before either side to the negotiations has even the slightest idea of what that new relationship to which we would be transmitting might consist, is pretty counter- intuitive. Moreover, we would be surrendering a key provision of Article 50 which requires that the terms of a member state’s withdrawal should take account of the new relationship between it and the EU. Far better, therefore, to begin negotiating that new relationship from the outset and in good faith and only to address the transitional issue in detail if and when it becomes clear that those negotiations cannot be completed in every detail within the two years laid down for withdrawal – though it may make sense to flag at the outset that we may need an interim arrangement.
These are issues, among many others, which parliament will need to debate in the three months which lie ahead. None is an obstacle to the government’s proclaimed objective of triggering Article 50 by the end of March so long as it recognises that it will need to remain accountable to parliament throughout the period of negotiations and will need parliament’s endorsement of the outcome once the negotiations are completed.
Edited by Hugo Dixon