Jill Rutter / Jul 2017
As the Prime Minister pulls on her Alpine hiking boots for her summer break, it’s a good time to reflect on where we are– four months after she set the clock ticking on its countdown to Brexit.
Despite the election, things have moved on – both in Brussels and back in London.
We have had two rounds of negotiations. The UK immediately ducked the so-called “row of the summer” on sequencing, and accepted, for now at least the Commission timetable.
On the three big divorce issues, there seems to have been some moving together on citizens’ rights – with both the EU and the UK tabling position papers. On substance, there may be deals to be done and more lines in the compare and contrast document the EU and DEXEU produced can turn green. But solving the question of the future jurisdiction of the ECJ will require someone to give.
On the money, the UK made clearer its vague commitment in the Tusk letter that it would meet its financial obligations – and the Commission, under pressure from member states, has gone big in its initial demands. There is a deal to be done if both sides want it – but it may require helpful presentation to gain consent in London. But the UK negotiators know that helping the EU out of its budget hole is its best card – and it will want to be able to deploy it as part of a final deal.
On Ireland, both sides seem to have recognised that not much progress is possible without being clearer on the final shape of the deal and the extent of future customs cooperation and regulatory harmonisation.
Back in London, we have seen the EU (Withdrawal) Bill published – with Parliamentary battles to come in the autumn. As drafted the bill itself is little more than a placeholder. But already the flashpoints are becoming clear: with the opposition over loss of entrenched rights and EU guarantees; with the devolved administrations over the destination of repatriated powers; with civil society groups over the loss of access to redress and enforcement through the Commission and the ECJ – and with Parliament and the constitutionalists in the House of Lords in particular over the extent of the so-called Henry VIII powers – allowing ministers to change primary legislation with minimal scrutiny. The government can call on the DUP to support it on Brexit – but remains vulnerable in the Commons on any issue that can unify the opposition and tempt over a few Tory rebels.
The Withdrawal bill is only the first of the Brexit legislative programme which will dominate the Parliament. The Queens Speech promised seven more – including such contentious issues as agriculture, fisheries and migration. Meanwhile Parliament’s Select Committees, whose chairmanships are dominated by Labour Corbyn refuseniks and Conservative remainers, will flex their muscles in holding government to account.
The big change in the debate in London has been on the re-emergence of some “half-in, half-out” options – EEA membership to retain single market rights, or creating a new customs union – either as a permanent solution or as a transition (or as some Brexiteers fear agreed initially as a transition that never ends). The growing consensus around transition comes from the realisation of the scale of the task of getting ready for Brexit - regularising the position of EU citizens already here in preparation for a new migration system; making the changes necessary to allow for the potential fivefold increase in customs documentation; potentially expanding infrastructure at ports which have operated on a roll-on, roll-off basis; and the sheer volume of other international agreements that need to be rolled over, remade and ratified to ensure its business as almost usual on 30 March 2019.
There is also an increasing awareness of some of the unintended fallout from Brexit. Noone voted leave to leave Euratom – but that is a consequence of leaving the EU. The UK government is now putting forward proposals to try to square formal departure with retaining as close association as possible. That may become the cumbersome template in more and more areas where we find ourselves on the wrong side of arrangements that have worked quite well in the past.
A year after the referendum, the UK has started to take some of the steps it needs to prepare for Brexit. But as it takes those steps, the daunting scale of the task it faces becomes much clearer. It is going to require decisive leadership, effective planning and execution and artful negotiation to get through the next twenty months.