15 December 2016

David Davis has given us some insight into how he sees the two years post Article 50 playing out. But Joe Owen says he needs to look beyond negotiations towards the practicalities of delivering Brexit.

In his first appearance at the Exiting the EU Select Committee, Davis deployed some rather predictable ambiguity in terms of the Government’s priorities. He told us that, while nothing was off the table at this point, he was not saying that everything was on the table either. But Davis did tell us more about the process and timelines of Brexit.

The Government’s Brexit plan will not be published until February at the earliest

Yesterday reinforced the fact that it isn’t clear exactly what the Brexit plan will be, either in terms of format or content. If, as many expect, the ‘plan’ is a high-level negotiating mandate (setting out the Government’s key objectives for talks), the February date is understandable. Given the volume, complexity and importance of the decisions to be made, it is right that the Government does not rush them – but at the same time, it needs to give departments enough clarity to allow them to prepare sufficiently.

The plan that should be released with a matter of urgency is not one that contains the Government’s position or priorities, but one that outlines the process. We know there are still important questions that need answering, particularly for Whitehall departments supporting the preparations for Brexit.

The Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) is acting largely as a co-ordinating unit, dependent on the analysis and expertise of others. Departments look to DExEU to provide a steer for their Brexit work. But we found that the policy experts in departments driving the Brexit analysis do not have the information they need to contribute effectively. They aren’t clear what is required of them before Article 50 can be triggered or how their work contributes to the bigger picture.

Davis expects to agree the ‘divorce’ and the new deal in 18 months

There are a variety of estimates for the likely duration of talks. Some argue we can get a ‘quickie divorce’ in six months, others say a new deal will take the best part of a decade so the focus should be on an interim arrangement.

Yesterday Davis told us he wants to agree the terms of exit and the future relationship in the planned two-year window, and for this reason he has DExEU preparing positions for both talks by March. But Government also needs to think about how it will manage and support the talks, and what role departments may have in providing the negotiating team with information and analysis throughout.

The EU, like the US and Canada amongst others, already has the structures and processes in place for managing and supporting negotiations. There are different models and mechanisms for how the UK might run the talks, but all require preparatory work to ensure they begin talks on the front foot. If David Davis wants to complete talks in 18 months, he can’t afford to waste negotiating time setting up teams and reporting processes. This work should be completed before Article 50 is triggered and talks begin.

He is also open to the idea of an ‘implementation phase’

Davis also revealed that while he believes a deal can be reached within two years, it will take more time to implement. If a deal is done in February 2019, it is unlikely the UK will be ready for its life outside the EU a month later, even if that deal is remarkably similar to current arrangements. To avoid a ‘cliff-edge’ at the point when the UK leaves the EU, planning for the ‘implementation phase’ should begin as soon as possible.

Policy areas like immigration and customs are potentially facing significant change, and changes can take years to implement. The Government must be thinking through these practical considerations now to ensure the UK avoids any ‘cliff-edges’ and any ‘implementation phase’ is as short as possible. Our research has found this thinking is not happening consistently enough across government, and greater direction is needed if government is to avoid delays or complications further down the line.

While government has made progress in preparing for Brexit, our latest report Whitehall’s preparation for the UK’s exit from the EU shows that there are key challenges that must addressed if the Government is to be ready for Brexit and life outside of the EU.

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