Sometimes a tweet from a politician really hits the mark.
So it was with this yesterday from European Council President Donald Tusk:
I have just recommended to EU27 leaders that we welcome, in principle, the agreement on transition. In practice, the transition phase will allow to delay all the negative consequences of #Brexit by another 21 months.
— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) March 21, 2018
Brexit transition will “delay all the negative consequences of Brexit by another 21 months”.
What can we make of this?
First, deferring the negative consequences, not alleviating them, is the name of the game for the EU side just now.
Second, the EU is by now just about as intent on getting the UK out of the EU by 29th March 2019 as May and the UK government are (as Seb Dance rightly points out), and the EU too is content to leave the really complicated Brexit issues for the transition period.
Third, that Tusk does not really acknowledge that time itself might make some of the Brexit problems harder to solve than they are now.
The appeal of pushing problems forward like this is clear – it avoids pain now, leaving someone else to take the hit later. And there is always the ill-guided hope that some masterful solution for the problems might emerge in the meantime. Tusk is especially free to play this game as he is not even going to be in office past the autumn of 2019 and hence will not have to face the consequences.
But what does this do to the major outstanding Brexit issues?
Take the Irish Border question. As Patrick Smyth rightly argues in the Irish Times, progress this week towards agreeing a transition period for the UK essentially just holds the line here – the UK has acknowledged that a backstop option has to be included (that Northern Ireland would stay in the Single Market and Customs Union) but states such an option is undesirable, but the UK also has no other workable proposal.
What’s the likely outcome? The UK will agree to the backstop now, but will avoid having to confront the border issue, and so the issue will rear up again in 2020 when the end-of-transition clock is ticking. By which time the UK is actually out of the EU.
Were the UK to decide – in 2020 rather than now – that, actually, a border in Ireland is a price too high for a Hard Brexit (out of the Customs Union and out of the Single Market), and wanted to contemplate a softer Brexit or indeed no Brexit at all, it is by then much harder. If the UK does legally leave on 29 March 2019 then the route back into the EU is following the rules of accession, a process I cannot foresee the UK undertaking (Schengen, Euro anyone?)
To put it bluntly, being in the EU and deciding to move to a Soft Brexit (or not leave) by March 2019 is much smoother than aiming for a transition period to a Hard Brexit, realising it does not work in 2020, and then backing out to a Soft Brexit or trying to stay in altogether only then.
Another major Brexit headache is the UK’s trade relations with the rest of the world post-Brexit, and the impact of the UK being a non-EU Member State has on that. I have explored this issue in detail here, and Nicolai von Ondarza has more on it in a thread here today. At the moment – without any proper assessment of whether this will work – the UK is banking on the rest of the world just treating the UK as if it were still an EU Member State during the transition phase while the UK works out how and if it can replicate the EU’s 759 international agreements. But once the UK is not an EU country, there is an impact on rules of origin in the EU’s trade deals, and firms will have to adjust their supply chains accordingly – even before transition starts.
So here too, delaying decisions comes with a price. The UK might eventually be able to sort a FTA with the EU that can smooth those supply chain headaches, but in the meantime the rest of the world will pick off what it can while the UK is not a Member State of the EU and its future relationship with the EU is unknown.
Of course there is another way to buy time without this pain – extend Article 50. But both the UK and the EU are not contemplating that at the moment.
As if that little lot were not enough, there are four further headaches of the way all of this is currently going, none of them insignificant.
First, December 2020 is just 17 months ahead of a UK General Election. If getting UK politicians to agree anything at all with regard to Brexit is hard now, how hard is it going to get when their eyes are on an election?
Second, the Withdrawal Agreement, as currently drafted, does not have a provision in it to extend the Transition Period. At least Article 50 has such a mechanism – the unanimous agreement of the rest of the EU. This is the EU putting a gun to the UK’s head, knowing that May’s government does not have the political capital now to argue that this is absurd and an extension clause must be included. This is the UK and the EU engaged in a sort of death pact, with the rest of us caught up with the consequences.
Third, the transition period is a democratic scandal as it means the UK has all the political obligations of EU membership, but its citizens have no political representation in the EU institutions. Coupled with my second point above, and lacking any confidence that 21 months is enough to solve the outstanding issues, UK citizens are facing democratic disenfranchisement on a major scale here. Extending Article 50 instead also solves that issue.
Fourth, there is the human cost of Brexit – stories like this today from Alexander (@37paday). While Brits in the EU, and EU citizens in the UK, have been doing their best to plan their lives, the human cost is not insignificant. Making all of those people wait, with some possible forlorn but undefined hope of a better solution, but no certainty, is no fun for anyone concerned. Those people will begin to start acting on the basis of the information they have, however incomplete.
So what is to be done?
Demand real, practical answers to all the issues I raise here. Demand them forcefully and relentlessly, especially in the areas where so horribly little is known – how the Irish Border issue could actually be solved, and what will happen to the UK’s trade relations with the rest of the world (the UK cannot just hope the rest of the world will play nicely). Repeatedly point out there is another way to do all of this – to extend Article 50 – rather than commit to this damaging transition.
But I fear that is not going to be enough. All that is going to save the UK from this mess now is for there to be a major political crisis of some sort, and for the government to change. Defections from the Tory Party for a start. And let’s have that crisis sooner than later, because if that happens after the UK has already left there is little hope to rescue anything positive from this situation.