21 March 2019

The mantra that EU negotiations always go to the wire ignores the fact that the PM signed her Withdrawal Agreement in November. Even if (and that's a big if) a deal goes through, the UK now faces the prospect of a long transition, argues Jill Rutter.

David Davis always insisted a deal with the EU would be done at the last minute. But he was talking about a different deal – not the Withdrawal Agreement, but the full future relationship agreement, covering trade and security.

Of course, the EU couldn’t sign a deal with an exsiting member state, but it would be ready to do so the minute the UK left on 29th March. At this point the two sides would then be able to implement it during the so-called implementation period.

The Davis vision was always unrealistic. But the impact of the Parliamentary stalemate since December is not just that we have wasted the value of the transition we negotiated, with business and government forced to invest in no deal plans, but we have wasted time on phase one that we could have spent preparing for the negotiations on our future relationship.

To negotiate a full blown trade agreement by December 2020 was always going to be demanding

The EU takes a long time to negotiate trade agreements. It would be breaking all records to negotiate an agreement between March 2019 and December 2020 (assuming that most elements could be “provisionally applied” by then – ratification will take much longer).

This will all be further complicated as we enter the phase in the EU of European elections, a wrangle over the new President of the Commission and (possibly) of the Council, and then the appointment and approval of the new Commission. The next six months will be a dead zone in the EU.

Had the withdrawal agreement been approved on schedule, the UK and the EU could have used the next few months to lay the groundwork for technical talks over the summer. This would have seen issues returned to the political leadership in the autumn, and the UK could have geared up its domestic engagement. At the moment, however, the civil servants across Whitehall twiddling their thumbs (or being posted into no deal planning centres) are the people who were supposed to be working on the UK’s future relationship with the EU.

If Brexit is in May or June, the negotiating period will be only a year

The danger is that no serious work at all can be done this side of the formation of a new Commission or European Parliament. The Joint Interpretative statement which the Prime Minister brought back from Strasbourg contained commitments to begin second phase negotiations as soon as the Withdrawal Agreement was signed, but those talks can’t get going as long as it remains in doubt. This compresses the timetable massively.

This all assumes that we can keep negotiating until the autumn. But the UK faces a key decision point much earlier: in summer 2020. That is the point when it needs to decide whether to ask to extend the transition period up to the end of December 2022 – or fall back onto the backstop (unless the “redoubled efforts” which the EU and UK have promised mean any alternative arrangements are agreed and up and running by then).

While the UK can ask, there is no guarantee the UK will get: and the potentially shark-infested waters of a negotiation on fish, left as an outstanding issue in the withdrawal agreement, stand between the UK and a transition.

Parliamentary delays make a long transition or stay in the backstop more likely

We may yet leave the EU with no deal. But if something that looks like the PM’s deal is passed by Parliament, then the pressure which the U.K. will be under in the second phase of negotiations will have been massively increased. The December 2020 second cliff edge will look very close with a May or June Brexit, and the chances of avoiding a long transition or a stay in the backstop will have gone down.

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Comments

Jill Rutter's analysis is cogent, but I fail to understand why the EU couldn't have proposed starting negotiations on the post-Brexit relationship as soon as the referendum had taken place, assuming of course that the UK government was ready to negotiate. If there's a good reason why that couldn't have happened (of course it's now water under the bridge), I'd be interested to know what it is.