I don’t know. Those seeking a clear prediction of how the Brexit drama will end can stop reading now. However, rather than admit incompetence, I assert realism. Anyone who claims to be certain about what will happen is fooling you, and possibly themselves.
There remains a real chance that the negotiations between the United Kingdom and European Union will fail. Theresa May’s office is playing down hopes of an early breakthrough. If the talks do collapse, the consequences could range from a catastrophic Brexit to a decision by the UK, possibly following a fresh referendum, to stay in the EU after all. However, let us cross that bridge if and when we come to it. Instead, let’s consider what might happen if there IS a deal.
Much will depend on the nature of any agreement. We may learn more this week, when Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, presents his latest proposals for a future trade relationship. If the UK concedes more than the EU and we head for a “hard” Brexit, with an end to frictionless trade and border controls at Dover, then Theresa May will have difficulty getting this plan through Parliament. Apart from a handful of Labour MPs, the opposition forces at Westminster will line up against the deal, and they will be joined by some pro-EU Conservatives. The voting will be tight.
However, taking account of the latest remarks by British, Irish, and EU insiders, any deal is more likely to be far softer than that.
Its first component, a political declaration on the long-term relationship between the UK and the EU, is likely to sound ambitious but contain a fair amount of wriggle room. It will not refer to the “Norway” or “Canada” models. It will contain words such as “special,” “deep,” “unique,” and “friendly” to describe plans for the UK and EU to cooperate—on trade, security, travel, and a host of other issues. It will speak of a future with “minimum” friction at British and EU ports—minimum being a usefully elastic word that can mean different things to different people. It will dodge tricky matters, such as the precise role of the European Court of Justice. These are things, the declaration will confidently assert, that will be quickly sorted out once the UK has left the EU.
The key point is this: a political declaration will be just that—political. It will not be legally binding. Disputes will either be resolved politically or allowed to fester. Meanwhile, Theresa May will proclaim that she has set the UK on a course to reclaim its sovereignty, while the EU will insist that it has protected the sanctity of its rule book on customs, the single market, and so on.
The other part of deal, the Withdrawal Agreement, is different. It will be a formal legal document. Its words will have precise meaning. It will set out the relationship that the UK will have with the EU immediately after Brexit takes effect next March (assuming that the March 29 deadline is not extended). It will include the transition, or “implementation,” phase, under which the UK and EU have already agreed to maintain all the current customs and single market rules until the end of 2020.
Much of the haggling in recent months has been over what will happen in January 2021—and for how long. In my last blog for Carnegie Europe, I set out some of the issues dividing the British and EU negotiators. It now looks as if the UK will accept something that looks like the transition phase, possibly for some years; that is, until the details of the long-term relationship have been pinned down, including what will happen at the UK-Ireland border.
To save the British government’s face, this second transition phase, let us call it T2, may contain different language: a “customs agreement” instead of the Customs Union, for example, or “regulatory alignment” instead of the Single Market. But it will still be legally required to walk like a duck and quack like a duck, even if it is rebadged as a waddling waterbird. The UK will still need to obey all the EU’s rules: not just on product standards, but those on such things as workers’ rights, the environment, and the freedom of EU citizens to come to the UK to work.
Significantly, T2 is likely to have no time limit. May will undoubtedly say that it is intended to last months, not years; but so was Norway’s 1994 agreement with the EU. Twenty-four years later, it is still going strong. A UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement would be replaced only when both sides agree on the detailed terms of the long-term agreement and the conditions for implementing them (including as-yet undeveloped technologies for keeping trade and complex supply lines fully open). This could take years… or decades.
If that, or something like that, is what May puts to Parliament, will a majority of MPs vote for it? Hardline pro-Brexit Conservatives will hate it. With good reason, they will accuse the government of turning the UK into a vassal state—a rule-taker, not a rule-maker—and possibly indefinitely. Many of them will want to vote against the deal.
However, Labour MPs may come to the government’s rescue. Such a deal would meet most of the Labour Party’s tests, at least for as long as T2 lasts. If local business leaders tell their MPs they can live with it and protect local jobs, enough Labour MPs will be tempted to vote for the deal, or at least abstain, for the government to win the majority it needs.
If that happens, then the UK will leave the EU next March, but the practical difference to businesses and citizens will be minimal, probably for some years and possibly indefinitely. It may be that the biggest short-term impact will be to British politics, with the strains of the Brexit drama weakening the cohesion of both the Conservative and Labour parties.
A full-scale realignment in British politics is unlikely. But if T2 is still in force when a new, more pro-European government takes office at Westminster, Britain’s new ministers may well decide to build on the close relationship with the EU that it inherits, rather than complete the Brexit journey charted by the current government.
This scenario depends on a number of “ifs” and “maybes.” It is far more likely that at least one of them will not transpire than that all of them will. However, this example of how events could play out illustrates a wider truth: whatever happens over the next few weeks, the impact of the Brexit saga will be felt, perhaps painfully, in the UK and EU for years to come.