At the start of the Brexit negotiating process, Richard Parry argues that two years is both too long and too short a period.
Theresa May has today given the statutory two-year period of notice for leaving the European Union. The article 50 under which this was done was an incidental part of the constitutional treaty project and was designed to specify for the first time that deepening European integration did not preclude a member state’s leaving. Two years is both too long and too short – too long to avoid prevarication and the blighting of confidence, too short to conclude all the business of a post-withdrawal relationship.
It is a misnomer to describe what will follow as ‘negotiations’. The UK government has renounced an indispensable part of a real negotiation, the threat to remain in the EU until it is happy. The notice period can be extended only by unanimity among remaining members with UK agreement. What we are likely to see is an identification of an inventory of points that will need to be resolved to avoid economic and political disruption on Brexit day, the ‘lorries piling up at Dover’. Dealing with these will have to rely heavily on the temporary extension of existing arrangements and possibly on sectoral deals in exposed fields like aviation and automobiles.
May’s letter to Donald Tusk maintains the rhetorical façade that everything can be wrapped up in two years; she says that ‘we believe it is necessary to agree the terms of our future partnership alongside those of our withdrawal from the EU’. This is likely to be beyond the technical capacity of the bureaucratic machines, let alone of the politicians. Perhaps the most significant point of substance in the letter, one of omission, is that it contains no suggestion that freedom of movement rights will be curtailed during the two-year period.
The implications for Scotland have not been changed by today’s announcement. The UK government is retaining the right to reserve any repatriated powers it considers necessary to maintain the UK market and UK interests. Timing remains crucial in terms of an independence referendum. There seemed to a be possible compatibility – April 2019 - between Nicola Sturgeon’s window of autumn 2018 to spring 2019, not excluding going beyond the Brexit date, and the UK government’s position of no referendum before Brexit happens. Yesterday the UK government allowed itself to extend this point of ‘happening’ (what David Mundell called ‘ the end of the Brexit process’) for as long as it likes, as transitional arrangements work themselves out, new trade deals are negotiated and, in its terms, Scotland gets to experience the delights of a post-Brexit future in the UK. Everything will be political, as May and Sturgeon focus on the cohesion of their parties and the risk of promoting a referendum they lose.