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 In fact those negotiations are to be about the terms of UK withdrawal: only after the UK has withdrawn from the EU, probably some time in 2019, can negotiations on a substantive trade deal with the EU begin, and a trade agreement of that complexity is bound to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.
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 [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.