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Brexit: the cliff edge approaches

October 9, 2017

Another day, another speech full of wishful thinking on Brexit from our lame-duck Prime Minister.

Negotiating our departure from the European Union was never going to be easy, let alone constructing a new relationship with the EU once we leave. These are statements of the obvious. Obvious that is to most informed observers: not, it seems, to our crippled, fractious government which, despite giving itself almost nine months before pressing the Article 50 button, has been woefully ill-prepared, making it easy for Michel Barnier and his EU negotiating team to ridicule our deeply flawed strategy at every turn.

Barnier is not the ideal choice as the lead EU negotiator. He is notoriously inflexible and deeply committed to the long-winded, bureaucratic procedures that the EU favours. These leave no detail overlooked and have enabled the EU to dismiss the UK’s feeble attempts to devise a coherent negotiating strategy. This hasn’t been hard as we have a government that is still negotiating with itself and has no idea of where it wants to get to by March 2019, let alone how it is going to get there. The EU team, however, is looking dangerously stubborn and inflexible.

It could have been different.

The UK could have grabbed the moral high ground and re-shaped the agenda early on by addressing the three main areas identified by Barnier as his priorities. In doing so, the negotiations might – I stress might – have taken on a more fluid, constructive tone.

Moral high ground

We should have made a generous and wide-ranging declaration regarding EU citizens already resident in the UK. Morally it is the right thing to do and economically we need them. By addressing this straight away we could then have demanded the EU respond with similar generosity towards the British citizens living in the EU. Thousands of people are still facing an uncertain future as a result of both sides using them as political pawns.

Future liabilities

The EU was always going to present a large, very detailed estimate of what it believes the UK’s future liabilities to the EU are. We appear to have been taken by surprise and have stumbled blindly towards making a back-of-the-envelope counter offer. What was David Davis and his team doing for nine months? Why didn’t that have a counter-offer ready or, better still, have a properly costed, defensible offer ready on day 1 of the negotiations?

Irish border question fraught with danger

The third of Barnier’s initial hurdles is the Irish border. The moment he flagged this up alarm bells should have been ringing in Whitehall because EU politicians do not understand the fragility of the peace in Northern Ireland. The European Parliament’s chief Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt betrayed the extent of their ignorance during his recent visit to Belfast when he said he was shocked by the walls dividing the Catholic and Unionist communities. Nobody who knows the first thing about the long, troubled history of Ireland would have made that comment.

The future of the Irish border is obviously a key issue but it should never have been made such a high-profile issue at the start of the negotiations. It needs handling with much more care than it is now receiving. We should have made clear that it is an issue that needed to be taken out of the headlines for as long as possible with the opportunity for those who live in Ireland and represent the different communities to shape their future.

Not only should more attention have been paid to the sensitivity of the Irish question but it is also clearly premature to attempt to resolve it.

What sort of border we have between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic depends entirely on our future relationship with the EU. If we stay in the Single Market and accept a reasonable degree of free movement of EU citizens then the border can stay very much as it presently is. The harder the exit of the UK from the EU then the more attention has to be paid to a new border settlement. To make a decision at the outset of the negotiations is to almost pre-judge the outcome.

Cliff edge Brexit will damage everyone

Unfortunately, it looks increasingly likely that the outcome will be a hard, hastily patched-together Brexit, the so-called cliff edge feared by businesses here and across the EU. It will be the most damaging for everyone.

With the UK government crippled by infighting and the EU team stubbornly refusing to come down from its lofty perch, the next round of negotiations offer little prospect of progress. The best we can hope for is some sort of messy transitional deal with some sensitive high profile sectors such as agriculture and fisheries excluded and the rest left to muddle along for a few years until the politicians come to their senses. That’s the best but neither Theresa May nor any of the inadequate pretenders to her soon-to-be-vacated throne seem remotely capable of achieving even that.


From → Politics

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