“How do you feel after Brexit day?” a friend messaged me on Wednesday night. “You’ve closed that chapter already, haven’t you?”
“I’m fine” was my response. The friend that sent me the message was right – I have closed that chapter.
While the Article 50 notification was a significant and somehow historic staging post in the Brexit saga, it did not really tell us anything new (with the minor sideshow of veiled threats about security) – neither about the UK government’s approach to Brexit, nor about the deeper political problems the UK is facing. I do not agree with Martin Kettle in The Guardian or The Economist that the notification makes exit all but inevitable now. For the notification to make exit all but inevitable it would mean this was somehow not the case before, but here I differ. The process to start the exit procedure was inevitable; that this procedure will conclude is far from clear as I will explain.
The Article 50 letter was the consequence of what ultimately is the really shocking development over the past few months: how Parliament, and especially the House of Commons, has sidelined itself in British politics. I had no expectation that the Commons would stop Brexit, but I did at least have the hope it would impose a few criteria on the government, to try to guide the Brexit process. Ultimately the Article 50 Notification Bill passed without a single amendment. Meanwhile the Brexit Committee of the Commons cannot land a blow on David Davis when he admits he has no idea about the economic consequences of crashing out of the EU without a deal, pro-Brexit MPs would sooner walk out of meetings than do proper scrutiny, and the Great
Repeal Bill Copy-Paste Bill is to give the executive sweeping powers to adjust the EU law brought into UK law, without the involvement of Parliament. So much for taking back control – take it from Brussels and give it straight to the executive.
The UK Government has not used the 9 months since the referendum in any sensible or meaningful way. It has not seriously begun to assess the impact of its ideologically driven form of Brexit on the population of the UK or on the UK economy. Even a technical matter like the Great Repeal Bill has gaps and omissions (David Allen Green calls it “flimsy“). May keeps on stating that the UK will pursue an exit agreement and a new trade deal with the EU in parallel, although the rest of the EU has clearly underlined that this is not viable. Britain has even seemed to cease trying to keep good channels of communication open in Brussels.
In short: British politics seems to be in a uniquely bad position.
So why am I calm?
I see the start of the Article 50 process as the moment when all of this ought to start to get real for the UK. It has been too simple for May, Davis and Johnson until now, assisted by a compliant media and backed by a slavish Parliament. Now the UK’s ill defined Brexit plans will face the wall of reality from the rest of the EU. The Article 50 process gives the rest of the EU the upper hand, and the EU side also seems to be better prepared and more reasonable than the UK just now.
There are essentially two paths for the negotiations as I see it: towards conflict, or towards fudge. The former seems to be the more likely at the moment, with both sides shaping up for a fight over financial contributions and access to the Single Market. Providing the EU side maintains a position of calm reasonableness throughout, I do not see such a conflict as a bad thing. The idea that the UK should revert to WTO rules would hurt the UK far more than it would hurt the EU – what, if anything, will force Parliament out of its slumber if not that? If instead negotiations are initially calm and constructive on both sides (and the UK government steadily ploughs through the major list of issues facing it) then everything is inevitably going to drag on far beyond the two years foreseen by Article 50 and some sort of transition agreements are going to be needed – and that then could well provoke acrimony on Theresa May’s own benches in Parliament (even if things stay smooth in Brussels).
Either way the idea that the two year negotiation period is going to proceed smoothly on both the Brussels and London sides strikes me as next to impossible, something that seems to largely have been ignored with everyone’s short term focus on the Article 50 notification. Somehow that makes me calm – I still, even now, or indeed even more now, cannot see how there is a way to a successful Brexit for the UK and sooner or later more people in the UK are going to see that. The issue then is to not be sad about this week, but to be determined and resolute about that moment when that happens, and to prepare for it.