Spring is starting to show itself across the West but the much-needed appearance of clarity in the Brexit negotiations shows no signs of happening as we approach the next deadline of March’s European Council meeting, by which time we need a transition deal to be signed off.
Theresa May has launched yet another reboot of her plans for leaving the European Union, with a number of senior Cabinet Members joining the Prime Minister for a series of set piece speeches entitled the “road to Brexit”. Your guess, however, is as good as mine as to just where that road is heading. And therein lies the heart of the many problems with the Government’s Brexit strategy: seemingly nobody from Whitehall to the European Commission knows what the Government want our relationship with the EU to look like once we have left the world’s largest trading bloc.
When asked this question, the Prime Minister refers to the Lancaster House speech that she delivered last January, where she declared Britain will be leaving the Single Market, the Customs Union and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. This would ostensibly appear to be a roadmap to our future relationship with the EU – albeit an economically disastrous one as evidenced by the Japanese Ambassador confirming the likes of Honda in our own patch would up sticks were this to happen. But the Phase One Agreement struck as recently as December over the divorce bill, citizens’ rights and, most importantly, the Irish border is seemingly irreconcilable with the Prime Minister’s plans to jettison the UK from the world’s biggest market.
And so, we are back to square one.
The Chancellor is commencing a tour of Scandinavia and the Iberian Peninsula where he will make his own set of speeches on Brexit from various European capitals. I daresay this is unlikely to add to the clarity of the Government’s position.
Furthermore, sending Hammond on a tour of EU capitals doesn’t just cause an image problem in the UK. As is often said, the clock is ticking. Hammond’s tour looks like the Government is again wasting valuable negotiating time and attempting to bypass the EU27 negotiations with the Commission and its chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, instead trying to appeal directly to the individual governments of the EU27.
Of course, the various member states of the European Union have different priorities for the Brexit negotiations: Eastern European states like Romania and Bulgaria want the rights of their citizens guaranteed, Greece wants to preserve the unity of the EU, and Ireland wants no hard border on its northern boundary.
There would, perhaps, be an opportunity for the UK to take advantage of these differing priorities – but the lack of any realistic objectives emanating from Downing Street make this impossible. Instead, we are witnessing a remarkable show of unity from the EU27 who, left with little other option, can only offer the UK a take-it-or-leave-it deal such as Canada’s – one that excludes services and fails to provide the solutions required on the Irish border – or by remaining in the Single Market and Customs Union, over which the Government remains stubbornly adamant is not going to happen.
These countries also have domestic issues that they are far more concerned about than finding a solution for Brexit when the British government is failing to come up with anything itself.
As our nation and its economy sails closer to the cliff edge – be it March 2019 or the end of transition – it becomes ever clearer that the deal we have now really is the best of all worlds. We enjoy unequivocal frictionless access to the Single Market and the Customs Union whilst remaining out of the Euro and out of Schengen. This deal will end in March 2019 unless something significant happens. Our businesses and our politicians need to consider what is achievable as the negotiations draw to a close: what best benefits the country both now and in the future; what deal will deliver more than we currently enjoy?
The Gloucestershire Brexit Summit will set out what a good Brexit looks like for Gloucestershire. Organised by Claire Moody MEP, the event on 9 March will bring together businesses and politicians to facilitate a wide-ranging and open debate on Britain leaving the European Union. Click here to register.