Brexit: Theresa May throws away her only card

Until last weekend, the prime minister had one asset that she could have used to motivate other EU leaders to enter into preliminary discussions of the broad framework of Britain’s future relationship with the EU after we have left it.  That asset was Britain’s sole right to decide whether, and if so when, to trigger formal negotiations under A50 (Article 50) on the terms of UK withdrawal.  EU leaders’ wish to get on with the negotiations and put Brexit behind them could have persuaded them to embark on vital preliminary talks if these had been the only way of getting the UK to pull the A50 trigger.  By setting herself a deadline (the end of next March) for pulling the A50 trigger, the prime minister has probably deprived not only herself, but all of us too, of two vital opportunities.  I identified these in a letter published in today’s Guardian  (5 October 2016): 

Ian Birrell, in an otherwise illuminating article (The delirium of these Tories: it’s like a Ukip convention,  4 October), says that in the forthcoming article 50 negotiations, to be triggered by Theresa May before the end of March, Britain “will have just two years to sort a trade deal with a bloc of 27 nations”. In fact those negotiations are to be about the terms of UK withdrawal: only after the UK has withdrawn from the EU, probably some time in 2019, can negotiations on a substantive trade deal with the EU begin, and a trade agreement of that complexity is bound to take yet more years to conclude.

If only Mrs May had left open the timing of the article 50 trigger, she could have had some leverage with the rest of the EU in seeking a prior understanding about a “framework for [Britain’s] future relationship with the Union” which the withdrawal negotiations are required by article 50 to “take account of” – an impossibility if even an outline framework of the future relationship has not yet been worked out. This would have enabled our government to insist that the withdrawal agreement to be negotiated under article 50 must include an interim trade agreement to cover the years after Brexit while a permanent trade agreement is being negotiated. It would also have provided an opportunity, once the “framework” for future relations was known, for the British people to say, before the trigger is pulled, whether the terms on offer after Brexit would be better for British interests than remaining in the EU on our existing terms.

But by committing herself to pulling the trigger within a mere five months (including the Christmas holidays), the prime minister has thrown away her sole source of leverage, and with it the opportunity to get a better idea of what Brexit will actually involve before she burns our boats. And with the absurdly named “Great Repeal Act” she seeks a blank cheque in advance, designed to usurp parliament’s right and duty to manage the monumental legislative consequences of Brexit! Not a good start.
Brian Barder

An official EU briefing paper produced for the European parliament states clearly that –

The formal withdrawal process is initiated by a notification from the Member State wishing to withdraw to the European Council, declaring its intention to do so. The timing of this notification is entirely in the hand of the Member State concerned, and informal discussions could take place between it and other Member States and/or EU institutions prior to the notification.       [My emphasis]

Article 50 itself, set out in the same document, provides that –

the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union [my emphasis]

which (as I argue in my Guardian letter above) makes no sense unless the withdrawing state (Britain) has already agreed, however provisionally, on a “framework for its future relationship with the [EU]”.  In the few months remaining to her before her self-inflicted deadline for an Article 50 notification, the prime minister clearly needs to remind her EU opposite numbers of their obligation under A50 to agree a ‘framework’ for our future relationship with the EU before the end of March:  to explain to them that it will be in everyone’s interests, including theirs, to include in the A50 negotiations an interim post-Brexit trade agreement covering the period when a substantive trade agreement is being negotiated: and above all, warn them that the agreed “framework” will have to be approved – or rejected – by the British parliament and people before she deposits an Article 50 notification.  She has no-one to blame but herself for leaving herself so little time for such vital discussions with her EU partners and consultations with her own parliament and people, both essential before the die is cast and the trigger pulled.




3 Responses

  1. Peter Martin says:

    “It would also have provided an opportunity, once the “framework” for future relations was known, for the British people to say, before the trigger is pulled, whether the terms on offer after Brexit would be better for British interests than remaining in the EU on our existing terms”

    Shouldn’t we have had this discussion before the referendum? Most voters were quite unaware that a vote to Leave meant anything other than just that. If it had been explained in advance that a vote to Leave was conditional on the terms being offered then it wouldn’t have been politically possible to pull the Art50 trigger quite so quickly afterwards.

    We could then have quite legitimately had a second referendum having put the terms on offer to the people for their further approval.

    So, why wasn’t it explained? It can only be because the Remainers thought that it was more likely to increase the Leave vote in June. If voters had thought that Leave didn’t mean more that “we’re thinking of leaving if we don’t get the right deal” – that would have been inevitable.

    So, wasn’t that a chance you took? And lost?


  2. Brian says:

    Brian writes in reply to Peter Martin:  Thank you for this.  

    First, I don’t accept that I “took a chance” with anything: I was strongly opposed to holding a referendum on EU membership from the start, regarded it as a reckless gamble with the nation’s future, designed purely to resolve an internal dispute inside the Conservative party. I thought it was the most irresponsible act by any UK prime minister since Suez (more so than over Iraq since the Iraq war would have happened whatever Blair had decided to do). I still do.

    If anyone had thought to make the referendum result (if in favour of Leave) conditional on the acceptability of terms that would have to be negotiated later, they would probably have abandoned the idea for the reason you suggest – namely, that it would encourage waverers to vote Leave since there would always be a chance to vote the other way later if the terms, when negotiated, looked too harsh. That seems to me a perfectly valid objection.  More simply, the idea was surely to offer a clear, simple, easily understood in/out binary choice, uncluttered by “subject to” or “provided that” or any attempt to spell out on the ballot papers what exit would actually entail — difficult, since nobody knew what it would entail, and we still don’t.

    Another difficulty about refining the terms of the question, lumbering it with provisos or otherwise making it provisional, is that strictly speaking it was no more than an advisory, non-binding expression of opinion, not a binding decision like the Scottish independence referendum.  A decision on this issue (whether to leave the EU) would have needed to be set out with lawyerly precision, provisos and all.  Unfortunately our political leaders foolishly committed themselves and their parties in advance to acceptance of the result, and its non-binding character was never explained.  This was partly because the liberal élite never dreamed, until the last moment, that there could possibly be a majority for Leave.  (Compare the failure of the Republican party mainstream leaders to nip the Trump candidature in the bud at a very early stage, assuming that no-one of sound mind could think of voting for him — and when they realised that he might actually win, it was far too late, perhaps fatally.)

    The fact surely is that it was a blunder to invite the electorate to vote on whether they wanted the UK to leave the EU long before the likely terms of our exit or of our future relationship with the EU were known, because they had not yet been discussed and agreed with (or imposed by) our EU partners; but without an expression of the wish to leave by a majority of the electorate who voted, it would have been impossible for a government which had no wish to leave the EU to embark on negotiations to establish the terms of our exit in the hypothetical circumstances of a decision to leave.  The only possible conclusion from this is that a referendum was a hopelessly inappropriate way of settling the issue.  There was a political party, UKIP, campaigning to Leave, and other parties strongly opposed.  UKIP was beginning to attract several millions of votes around the country.  We should have embarked on Brexit when, and only when, a pro-leave party or group of parties won an election fought mainly on the issue. The pro-Leave party or parties would have been forced to spell out the kind of terms they would seek for Brexit if they won, and these would have been subject to forensic scrutiny by the pro-Remain parties.  Nothing of the sort happened in June.

    But hindsight is, as they say, a fine thing.


  3. Peter Martin says:



    Whichever we voted, many of us do regard Brexit as an unfortunate failure. Both on the part of the EU and the the UK. We all might like to assign some blame for what has happened. It is easy, as you do,  to blame David Cameron for calling the referendum in the first place. But what about the EU’s failure to present an attractive option to the majority of UK voters?  The Leave vote was 17 million. UKIP’s vote at the last election was less than 4 million. So that’s a lot of extra votes to have to explain away.

    An alternative argument is that it is really the EU’s failure that is to blame for Brexit.  So, how about finding out who wrote the absurdly named “Stability and Growth Pact” for the EU and apportioning some responsibility to them?

    Ultimately,  many political events, including wars, are driven by economic circumstances.  So it is important that the EU has successful economic policies which don’t create the high levels of unemployment we’ve seen recently there. It can be no surprise that these high levels of unemployment lead to high levels of migration which in turns leads to high levels of social disquiet.

    If we’d had a vote just ten years ago before the problems brought about by the SGP and common currency there can be little doubt that the result would have been markedly different.

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