So now we know, Brexit really does mean Brexit.
But without labouring everything Mrs May said or didn’t say and the attendant hysteria of some about tumbling towards a rock hard Brexit, the speech deserves closer attention.
I need to say up front that there is a risk of over-doing the textual analysis but I’m going to do it anyway. It’s all we have, but it means what I’m about to write is still just a theory not a fact.
The really interesting section of the speech was her twelfth objective (of twelve) entitled “A smooth, orderly Brexit” — an idea that some of us “Liberal Leaver” folk have been promoting for some time.
It was interesting because while much of the speech was about the destination — and few Leavers would argue with the destination — this was the one section that gave us the “how” of Brexit. It deserves careful reading:
“12. A smooth, orderly Brexit
These are our objectives for the negotiation ahead — objectives that will help to realise our ambition of shaping that stronger, fairer, Global Britain that we want to see.
They are the basis for a new, strong, constructive partnership with the European Union — a partnership of friends and allies, of interests and values. A partnership for a strong EU and a strong UK.
But there is one further objective we are setting. For as I have said before — it is in no one’s interests for there to be a cliff-edge for business or a threat to stability, as we change from our existing relationship to a new partnership with the EU.
By this, I do not mean that we will seek some form of unlimited transitional status, in which we find ourselves stuck forever in some kind of permanent political purgatory. That would not be good for Britain, but nor do I believe it would be good for the EU.
Instead, I want us to have reached an agreement about our future partnership by the time the two-year Article Fifty process has concluded. From that point onwards, we believe a phased process of implementation, in which both Britain and the EU institutions and member states prepare for the new arrangements that will exist between us will be in our mutual self-interest. This will give businesses enough time to plan and prepare for those new arrangements.
This might be about our immigration controls, customs systems or the way in which we cooperate on criminal justice matters. Or it might be about the future legal and regulatory framework for financial services. For each issue, the time we need to phase-in the new arrangements may differ. Some might be introduced very quickly, some might take longer. And the interim arrangements we rely upon are likely to be a matter of negotiation.
But the purpose is clear: we will seek to avoid a disruptive cliff-edge, and we will do everything we can to phase in the new arrangements we require as Britain and the EU move towards our new partnership.”
In case you didn’t spot it, the key paragraph within this crucial section was this one [with some further added emphasis]:
“Instead, I want us to have reached an agreement about our future partnership by the time the two-year Article Fifty process has concluded. From that point onwards, we believe a phased process of implementation, in which both Britain and the EU institutions and member states prepare for the new arrangements that will exist between us will be in our mutual self-interest. This will give businesses enough time to plan and prepare for those new arrangements.”
The way I read this is as follows:
- The Government wants to come to an “agreement” with the EU by the end of the two-year Article 50 period. For the sake of argument, let’s call that date Friday 22nd March 2019.
- “From that point onwards”, the government is looking to start implementing the agreement with the EU in phases, each with planned milestone dates. This clearly suggests to me that on Saturday 23rd March 2019, they are not expecting anything to really change except, probably, that the UK will literally not be a member of the EU. But the UK Government seeks “interim arrangements” that, to all intents and purposes, are very similar or even the same as those we had inside the EU before the 22nd March 2019.
- Then from Saturday 23rd March 2019, “both Britain and the EU institutions and member states [will] prepare for the new arrangements…”. And if there was any doubt about what is being said about this “point onwards”, we then get: “this will give businesses enough time to plan and prepare for those new arrangements.”
Thus the steady unwind of the EU/UK relationship would only start after the Article 50 two-year mark.
An alternative reading
Of course one could read it another way. Namely the UK/EU agree to put in some (quite basic) interim arrangements starting on Saturday 23rd March 2019 and we then build up from that position to ultimately reach the full final Comprehensive Trade Agreement. This alternative is prompted by the phrase “And the interim arrangements we rely upon [while in the implementation period after the two years] are likely to be a matter of negotiation.”
However that would itself represent a small “cliff edge” because the UK would be going from EU membership to something quite basic, then building back up again in certain areas. Why would the UK do that? And why would the EU want to move on from this basic interim arrangement? Once we’re out in “basic land”, the EU would have every reason to go slow to extend the element of economic discomfort provided by the basic interim arrangement.
So I think this alternative reading doesn’t really work. The “interim arrangements” sentence is just cunningly stating the obvious — that attempting to keep all arrangements broadly as they are now on Saturday 23rd March will still require negotiation/agreement with the EU.
A Broad Agreement
Going back to Mrs May’s speech, this means the “agreement” she describes as being struck before the end of the two-year Article 50 period is not necessarily the Comprehensive Trade Agreement in all its detail, but a blueprint, a framework, a roadmap… a broad agreement .
Funnily enough, in his opening speech in the House of Commons debate shortly after the prime minister’s own speech, David Davis used exactly that term (emphasis added):
“We intend to reach broad agreement about the terms of our new partnership with the EU by the end of the two-year negotiation triggered by article 50, but then we will aim to deliver an orderly process of implementation.”
All of this might explain why the government seems unbothered by the very obvious criticism to Mrs May’s approach — that writing, agreeing and signing a full Comprehensive Agreement in the space of two years (or even eighteen months, as per Michel Barnier) is impossible.
Because they are not expecting to write and agree one in that time.
Instead they intend to come up with a roadmap and an associated implementation plan, plus an agreement to essentially continue as is (albeit outside EU membership) when we hit Saturday 23rd March. They then look to unwind the relationship over time.
The prime minister was not prescriptive about how that unwind will happen or what exactly will be addressed or when. As she said….
“This might be about our immigration controls, customs systems or the way in which we cooperate on criminal justice matters.”
It is interesting that she included immigration controls. That will take time to set up and to resource properly. Indeed this could be the first time she is warming us up to free movement carrying on a little longer if she can’t get the EU to agree to limiting free movement as part of the “interim arrangements”.
One obvious question is: “Will the Government just use the EEA model from 23rd March?”
It is clear that Theresa May does not want to make that jump and it would now be politically difficult for her to do that. There were many hints throughout her speech that the UK government sees that as parking the UK there in a just-too-convenient way, which would end up being “purgatory” or “half in, half out”. The difference between EEA and what I think is being proposed is that the May approach is most definitely a roadmap and the position on 23rd March most definitely a temporary point on a plan with a politically limited timescale and with both parties actively working towards the ultimate destination over time.
Which presents another obvious question: “How long will this take?”
I suspect the prime minister is trying to keep a General Election in reserve and, if all goes to plan, call one in 2019 to get popular ratification of the blueprint and implementation plan. She may even wait until 2020. Assuming she wins that, it then gives her another five years in which to implement the blueprint period, at which point she either fights one last general election as Tory leader or steps down at an appropriate moment just before. Her legacy would then be that she took Britain out the EU and set up a new relationship with it.
That gives us a planned maximum timescale of five years for the implementation period. Of course if the noise and obstructions around the Article 50 two-year period get too much, she may just have to engineer an early General Election but I suspect she would still have in mind a similar maximum implementation timescale.
All of which might explain why Liberal Leavers look relaxed about Mrs May’s vision and indeed why even Remainers have welcomed it. This is also why Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall worry about a “slow motion Brexit”. Their worry should provide comfort to most sensible Leavers but it is true that implementation of the blueprint over a period of years *could* feasibly get ‘stuck’. This is a necessary risk of not cutting off from the EU in one fell swoop but I strongly suspect it is an overplayed concern and the EU will be glad to get shot of us.
So Mrs May’s speech suggests a Brexit that looks hard on the outside but has a hidden softer centre.
Well it’s just a theory.