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Expert View

May’s transition deal is a pyrrhic victory

by David Hannay | 19.03.2018

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

As the government closes in on reaching agreement with the EU 27 this Friday on the terms of the standstill period for the first 21 months after we leave the EU the full enormity of what they have conceded hardly seems to have sunk in to the minds of their usually extremely vocal Brexit supporters.

During 2019/20 the UK will remain in the customs union and the single market, free movement of people, direct jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, oversight of the Commission will continue just as now. No new fisheries policy. No new agriculture policy. Only we will have no say in the EU’s decision making processes, neither in the Council nor the European Parliament; and no representation in the Commission nor the ECJ. And all that for a standstill period of clearly inadequate duration which will merely postpone the cliff edge to New Year’s Day 2021. Quite a bonfire of the vanities.

When we are encouraged next weekend to celebrate this second, remarkably Pyrrhic, Brexit negotiating victory following the first one last December, will there be no concessions to chalk up? Well we are to be permitted to begin negotiating new trade deals with third countries although not to benefit from them. Unfortunately most of the third countries we will want to negotiate with will either already have free trade or customs union agreements with the EU (South Korea, Turkey, Norway, Switzerland) or will be giving top priority to negotiating such agreements (Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the Mercosur countries in Latin America) or will want to know the detailed terms of the UK‘s future trade relationship with the EU which we will be unable to predict for a considerable time to come (US, China).

So, why are the ultra-Brexiters taking all this apparently so calmly? Why does Jacob Rees-Mogg describe criticism of it as “nit picking“? Presumably because the post-Brexit nirvana which they sold to the electorate in 2016 has now been reduced to one single objective, leaving the EU on 29 March 2019 at any cost. To achieve that any sacrifice in the negotiations about to begin over the new framework for our post-Brexit relationship with the EU is likely to be accepted in order to avoid jeopardising that one objective. Inadequate specificity in the terms of this framework, blurring of red lines, substantial financial contributions to ensure continuing access to EU programmes for scientific research and law enforcement additional to those already accepted in the December divorce agreement; all these are likely to be accepted by the time a deal is struck later this year.

This time last year we were being told by the government that no deal was better than a bad deal. Anyone who questioned that dubious proposition was accused of unpatriotically weakening the UK’s negotiating hand. Since then we have seen the no deal scenario tested to destruction as the government’s own calculations of the economic consequences, which have seeped into the public domain, point towards a substantial loss of economic growth which could not possibly be compensated by new trade deals with third countries. The logical conclusion to be drawn is that any deal, even quite a bad deal, is better than no deal. And that is only too likely to be what Parliament will be told is the choice whenever a deal is struck towards the end of the year.

As the government zig-zags and lurches towards that finishing line it becomes ever clearer that some fundamental decisions will need to be taken by Parliament when the outcome of the negotiations is brought before them.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon

One Response to “May’s transition deal is a pyrrhic victory”

  • What’s fascinating is that many of the most prominent Remainers have been quick to stick the knife into the more rabid Brexiteers, without realising / acknowledging what the deal means for them.

    The transition deal effectively kills dead the ‘referendum on the facts’ idea. Because clearly there won’t be a deal to put before voters before March 29 (or in reality, December at the very latest).

    It also means that the ‘say’ Parliament gets too is likely to be reduced to accept the transition and the ongoing negotiations, or it’s ‘no deal’.

    Like with the Gina Miller case, the Article 50 vote, and the snap election, there seems to be a lot of goading the Tories and the Brexiteers, lots of analysis as to how awful the transition will be, but less consideration of what it means for the remains of the Remain campaign.