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4 January 2017

Mrs May has been cagey about her Brexit plan. What do we know about our exit?

Since taking office at Downing Street, Theresa May has endlessly repeated the motto ‘Brexit means Brexit’. She says it to the press, and recently we discovered that she even repeats it ad nauseam to the Queen herself, refusing to provide hard details on the deal she hopes to win. She insists that she will not give a ‘running commentary’ on Brexit, but in practice this has meant that she has told us little if anything about the process of withdrawal as she envisions it.

Yet Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson says there is ‘an absolute wealth of information about what Brexit will look like’, speaking in vague terms about ‘control’ of immigration (as opposed to precise measures), reducing payments to Brussels (without committing to financial independence) and the return of trade policy to the competence of the British government. What can we work out so far?

A speedy negotiation

Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty provides for a two year negotiating period for withdrawal. Many alleged experts claimed that such a window was insufficient, suggesting we’d be left dangling from the bloc without a proper deal. But Brexiteers have been more optimistic, calling for exit as quickly as possible regardless of the time span permitted by the European treaties.

And such optimism has proven well founded, with European Commission negotiator Michel Barnier demanding that talks conclude within eighteen months, not two years, so that the European institutions will have sufficient time to ratify the deal and ensure that Brexit is a smooth and orderly process. With this new time frame, we should see the final contours of Brexit by the end of September 2018, not March 2019.

A transition deal

But the good news ends there. While formal negotiations should be wrapped up more quickly than we had initially been led to believe, our relationship with the faltering European Union may last for much longer than it ought to. Talk of a speedy and clean Brexit has been replaced with vague talk about a ‘transitional arrangement’ whereby we remain in the single market for some period of time before quitting the bloc for good. Chancellor Philip Hammond has long been a proponent of such a measure, and he’s recently been supported by a politician we’d normally consider a true blue Brexiteer: Brexit Secretary David Davis.

Establishment politicians and Eurocrats promise that such a deal will be time-limited, but what guarantee would an anxious public have that this would be the case? The government insists that the details of our post-Brexit relationship will be finalised during Article 50 negotiations, and that any transitional arrangement would simply smooth the exit process. But if details of our future relationship have been fleshed out, why not move to them immediately?

Many Remainers, who are working hard to stall our withdrawal, have suddenly become big fans of Norway. After months of campaigning against Brexit on the basis that Norway had a crummy deal outside of the EU, they now praise single market membership as a post-Brexit ideal – keeping us chained to the club without sufficient influence to chart its course. In the transition talk, many Brexiteers see the first step in a plan to keep us trapped in a Norway-style EEA arrangement – half in the EU, and half out.

The Customs Union

Even if we were to avoid the pitfalls of an endless transition, whereby we were trapped in the EU single market (with no control over our borders or our financial contributions) indefinitely on the premise that we would eventually quit the bloc, concerned Brits would be forced to confront a barrage of talk about continued participation in the EU’s Customs Union – an arrangement that would see us interface with the EU in the same way Turkey does.

Under such an arrangement we would have control of our borders – a big advantage over single market membership, and something that would deliver on a promise of Brexit. But we’d remain subject to the common external tariff, a malicious protectionist system that denies nations their own trade policy and inflates the cost of global goods to incentivise the purchase of European products.

Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, has spoken about this option and stressed the benefits in trade continuity. But if he is so concerned with continuing our mad, Eurocentric trade policy – by which we have privileged access to shrinking European markets while having our access to booming foreign markets retarded by the ambitions of the European project – what exactly is the purpose of his position?

Dr Fox, and other Brexiteers in the cabinet, should be charting the course for a clean exit from the crumbling European Union. Among all the vague ‘Brexit means Brexit’ talk, all we’re getting are signs of a long drawn out process that may never end.