Brexit – One Year to go

At the end of March 2019, next year, Britain will leave the European Union. Some still believe it won’t – but since Article 50 has been triggered the decision has been taken. Could the decision be reversed? – Yes it could!

But that takes an effort. The representatives of the people in Parliament must act and decide to ask for a reversal. The Tories are split between hard and less hard Brexiteers, and Labour is dominated by a Stalinist verticalism that does not tolerate plurality inside the party, but only reflects big boss Corbyn’s anti-European attitudes. Pro-European majority views in the Labour Party and even within the Momentum movement do not count much. Parliament may still have nuisance value when Brexit is voted, but I do not expect the Commons to take up the responsibility they gave up when endorsing the referendum.

The Remainers have finally organized themselves, but their public faces are the people of yesterday, with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Michael Heseltine and John Major they will not turn the tide. I have no doubt that all of them sincerely want to avoid severe damage for Britain – but their credibility suffers from the fact, that they had their time to do that, but did not use it. They stood for being half-pregnant in Europe, a weak position compared to those who want abortion of the brainchild of an ever closer Union.

The British people have a chance to change their mind whenever a general election is called, at least after five years when the period of a Parliament comes to an end. But referenda have no terminal date to run out, they stay like an elephant in the room, as if the „will of the people“ expressed in a wretched referendum is worth a million times more than democratic elections. The name of the disease is populism, its symptoms are ‚referenditis‘. I fear there is no fast remedy.

On the continent people aren’t really very interested in Brexit, it does not stir up any emotions outside the British communities who will be hit if their status is not fully secured by mutual agreement. The governments know well that this is weakening Europe, that it is damaging for all sides, but they arranged themselves with the facts and will just make the best of it pragmatically.

Would they accept a reversal? Yes, they would – but reluctantly. Until March 2019 they would accept the interpretation that Britain could untrigger Article 50, even if some lawyers believe this is not possible, it would be done for political reasons.

They would do it reluctantly, because they fear that the row inside Britain would force every new government to virtually continue Brexit-negotiations even while staying inside the EU, changing Britain from a half-pregnant to a quarter-pregnant member state. That is no fun for the other partners. The United Kingdom would not be a strong and confident partner, but a torn country with an identity crisis.

After March 2019 the chance for cancelling Brexit is over. Then there will only be different ways of shaping the new relationship depending on negotiation power, mutual interests, mutual concessions, and last, but not least the international environment. With Theresa May I share the view that this should be the best possible relationship – although observing the red lines of the Prime Minister the best possible can only be the fourth-best, because the best would be membership, the second-best staying in the single market, the third best staying in the customs union.

Where do we stand in the negotiation process? The British negotiating team spread optimism all the time, while the EU negotiator Michel Barnier stayed rather dry and unenthusiastic. At the moment the EU partners including Barnier join in talking about positive developments and progress in the negotiations. However, the risk of a cliff edge jump is still there. Let’s have a look to the different agreements:

In December 2017 there was an understanding that the three main points for the divorce settlement were agreed upon with some reserves about the form how to implement them. But the implementation is the core problem. When trying to put the agreement down in form of a legal text it was clear that there were different interpretations.

The question of the Irish border is not resolved. The Irish government more than once insisted on the fallback, that guaranteed an alignment of rules and duties in Northern Ireland with EU-rules that would automatically create the need for customs controls over the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Britain cannot offer any realistic alternative to that solution if it leaves the customs union.

The rights of EU citizens who came to Britain with the right to stay indefinitely with their rights guaranteed under EU law and the European Court’s jurisdiction will not be kept. Those who get a permanent residence permit need bureaucratic procedures to get it, their status will be minor, their legal guarantees stripped. And I suppose the EU will reciprocate British behaviour towards British residents in the EU.

Some rights end automatically: EU citizens can become civil servants all over the Union, several thousand will lose their job because there is no exception possible. The right to move freely inside the Union is a right for EU citizens, British residents may be trapped in the one country were they actually reside. I think that the EU should in the end unilaterally give British residents a better deal and offer easy access to double citizenship in the EU – but if the British behaviour towards EU citizens becomes too annoying, this may not be politically feasible.

The financial settlement is not very detailed – so new discussions over specific obligations may come up and poison the climate. Any new arrangement will also have financial consequences, especially if Britain is conceded membership in some European institutions that are open to non-members.

Since Britain does not accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) an arbitration mechanism has to be formed which may lead to even more confusion and complications. Many elements of EU cooperation in the field of justice and internal security include that an appeal to the ECJ must be possible.

The fine speech of Theresa May in Munich on how important security cooperation will also be in the future became even more illustrated by the Skripal poisoning in Salisbury. But even inside the EU Britain often blocked common European answers in favour of keeping security based on NATO. The close cooperation through NATO will hopefully not change. However, how could Britain expect that it could participate in the common foreign and security policy if Norway – which is linked to the EU much closer than Britain wants to be – does not have this privilege. We have all interest in the closest possible consultation mechanism, but this is nothing like membership. And since it means more extra meetings, extra arrangements or extra rules, this may tire all participants until this cooperation goes asleep.

What will happen in one year on 1st of April 2019, when Britain is out? Not too much! Britain will no longer sit at the table in any EU councils, the UK will no longer participate in any EU decision making. But there will be a transition period til 1st of January 2021 – if falling from the cliff-edge does not spoil everything. During that period Britain will act like a full member, pay its contribution to the EU budget and keep EU laws. Tough Brexiteers do not like that and call it the status of a vassal. They forget that it mainly means Britain enjoying all the privileges of a member state for nearly two more years. Then Brexiteers get what they want: no more privileges, no more rights, no more duties except those agreed upon in a new free trade agreement.

If Brexit cannot be avoided a new relationship has to come into force. It could mean staying in the single market – the price is tagged – it is called the Norway model (Switzerland is more specific and complicated), it could mean staying in the customs union. The price is negotiable, but the WTO then forbids nearly all separate trade deals. The only model compatible with Theresa May’s red lines is a free trade agreement.

The transition period will give both sides some time to hammer out such an agreement. Theresa May wants something like Canada+++, the EU commissioner Günter Oettinger once said, that he would rather expect Canada-dry to be the outcome.

Even the very best free trade agreement is much less than membership. When leaving Britain is loosing all membership rights – and must then try to negotiate to get whatever it thinks is in its interest. This is a normal negotiation process where both sides will give and take. However it is stunning how little Britain is willing to give for what it wants to have. So it may also get much less than Brexiteers believe. If this is only the opening gambit for a tough negotiation thia may be admissible, it is still a sign of misconceptions about what the European Union is and what it can offer for non-memberstates.

I have my doubts whether a free trade agreement can be done within two years. We should try our best, but the only way to do that may be to take some agreement from the bookshelf and copy and paste it.

Not next year, but in 33 months, on 1st of January 2021, the real test will happen: then Britain is also out of any transition agreements and has to live with what will be agreed up to that date, either with WTO rules only or with a free trade agreement. Only then the full consequences of Brexit will start to be felt. Then every traveller who is crossing the Channel into the EU will not only have to show the passport and possibly fillin an entry form, but also queue up to open the luggage for customs controls, show quarantine papers for pets, fresh fruit and vegetables will be confiscated, lorries will wait for clearance, drivers will have to show an international driving license (if there is no agreement on mutual recognition before), whenever somebody wants to stay for more than 3 months, or wants to study or to work on the continent, he or she will have to get a permit first an then apply for visa at the respective consulates in Britain before leaving. This is not back to the future – it will be back in the past.