So, the clock is about to start ticking.
Prime Minister Theresa May is to officially notify the European Union next Wednesday that the UK is leaving. Downing Street said she would write a letter to the European Council, adding that it hoped negotiations on the terms of exit and future relations could then begin as quickly as possible. An EU spokesman said it was “ready and waiting” for the letter. Mrs May’s spokesman also rejected reports an early election may be held, saying: “It’s not going to happen.” Under the Article 50 process, talks on the terms of exit and future relations are not allowed until the UK formally tells the EU it is leaving. If all goes according to the two year negotiations allowed for in the official timetable, Brexit should happen in March 2019.
With May unwisely having opted for a ‘hard Brexit’ and both France and Germany preoccupied with elections this year, the timetable will be even more challenging than it was already always going to be. Yes, it’s true that some Remainers have made a speciality of ‘problematizing’ Brexit, but reworking Britain’s relationship with the EU after over forty years of integration is indeed technically as well as politically extremely complex. In a speech last week (well summarized here) in London, Pascal Lamy, the former head of the WTO, compared the process to separating an egg from an omelette. Even if that overstates what is involved, there is a significant possibility (close to a certainty, really) that there may have to be transitional arrangements after the formal Brexit date (there have been suggestions that these might have to last for as long as ten years) as everything falls or is shoved into place. As EU Referendum’s Richard North observes, those arrangements are “almost certainly going to require some oversight by the ECJ [the EU’s court], while putting [Britain] in the position of having to accept everything thrown at [it] for those ten years, with the proverbial “no say” in the formulation of new rules”.
The argument that Britain would have no say in rule-making for the EEA (the ‘single market’) was one of the objections of the hard Brexiteers to the idea that the UK should cut a deal with the EU similar to that enjoyed by Norway. It was an objection only—how shall I put it— loosely connected to the facts, and now the UK may be looking at something considerably worse.
What is needed is a hard-headed Brexit. And hard Brexit is not that.