Brexit Talks: What Happens When the Clock Stops?

John Palmer | 10 January 2018

© 2017 European Union

The drum beat marking the process of the UK’s exit from the European Union is now taking on an increasingly urgent rhythm. The critical phase of the Brexit negotiations is about to begin, but neither the UK’s EU partners nor the British public has any clear idea of what London actually thinks it can achieve.

More to the point, the clock is running down rapidly. It is becoming increasingly difficult to see how the overall process of Brexit can be achieved in anything like the official timetable. There is even a risk that an unforeseen breakdown in the negotiations could propel a hard, ‘over-the-cliff’ Brexit which neither side wants – simply because time had run out.

In London, the May government adopts a tone of pained surprise at suggestions that the Brexit process is in deep trouble. ‘Our goals are clear,’ ministers say. ‘We want Out. But we also want many/most/all? of the benefits of being In!’ This is an avowal of a ‘cherry-picking’ tactic writ breathtakingly large.

Of course, EU leaders have repeated endlessly that this is simply not on. So how might the May government finesse the process? Part of the dimly emerging London strategy seems to rest on a great deal of linguistic gaming. For example, we are told that there is ‘no way’ the UK can remain a member of either the single market or the customs union when it leaves the EU.

But now it appears – in the fine print of proposed Brexit legislation going through Westminster – that ‘a customs union agreement between the EU customs union and the UK’ might be possible. It seems only a matter of time before such wordplay is used to finesse talk that the UK must leave the EU single market as well.

A bit like Schrödinger’s cat, the UK could end up both In and Out at the same time, in terms of London’s political quantum theory. The response from Brussels (not only the key EU institutions, but the vast majority of member state governments as well) is ‘Dream on at your own risk.’

Actual negotiations on the next ‘transitional phase’ marking final preparations for exit will only begin in late January or early February – with trade talks scheduled to start in late March at the earliest. Quite apart from the sheer political distance to be bridged between the UK and the EU, that leaves barely nine months in which to secure an agreement on the conditions which will apply in this transitional phase.

Added to this is the desire of both sides to agree, in this phase of the negotiations, at least the broad outlines of a future treaty on economic, political and security cooperation between the UK and the EU, post Brexit. No wonder the ticking of the clock is becoming deafening.

The pressure has also been ramped up by EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier’s statement that the transitional phase itself will have to conclude by December 2020, at which point the UK will be fully outside the European Union. This is a somewhat shorter timetable than even hard-line ‘Leavers’ in Westminster had assumed.

Of course, a broad agreement on the principles governing a future EU-UK cooperation treaty is not the same as a detailed, legal agreement on the terms of trade and regulation which will apply to a myriad of different sectors of EU-UK trade. Unsurprisingly, there are some – on both sides of the channel – who think the final negotiating process may have to drag on well beyond the end of 2020.

This mirrors the frequently expressed concern by important sectors of British industry and services (notably financial services) that any transitional phase should last much longer than either Brussels or London are as yet contemplating. If any such prolongation of the transition were eventually to be agreed, it is not hard to see the UK remaining bound by an agreement which may look indistinguishable to the voting public, in terms of legal obligations, to full EU membership.

Moreover if this ‘neither really in nor really out’ regime were to continue until 2022 – the political consequences could be explosive. After all, March 2022 marks the time when, under fixed-term parliaments, a new general election must be held.

Of course, in the real world, both Brexit negotiating parties will not want a potential disaster to be triggered merely by the exigencies of the clock. It will always be open to them to extend both the current phase of the talks and the transitional phase as well.

But if this happens, the UK political environment could be dramatically affected. Any significant extension of the current negotiations or the transition period would mean that the UK would in effect still be bound by many of the conditions of EU membership (without of course any voice or vote in shaping EU laws) through into the next general election campaign.

That would be a tricky one for a Conservative government to explain to voters. Of course, by the same token, it would open up all manner of new possibilities for opposition parties to make the government’s chaotic Brexit adventure a central issue in the election. And that could open the way to reverse the entire Brexit process.

AuthorJohn Palmer

European Policy Centre

John Palmer was the European Editor of The Guardian between 1975 and 1996. He was subsequently a Founder and Political Director of the European Policy Centre in Brussels until 2007, and is now a member of its Governing Council.