IMF: Britain should consider "flexibility" in Plan A

"Consideration should be given to greater near-term flexibility in the fiscal adjustment path."

The IMF has cut its forecasts of UK GDP growth in 2013 and 2014 by 0.3 percentage points for each year, to 0.7 and 1.5 per cent respectively. The figure for 2013 is still 0.1pp above the OBR's own forecast for 2013, but where the OBR sees growth picking up rapidly – rising to 1.8 per cent in 2014, and then 2.8 per cent by 2018  the IMF is predicting a slower recovery.

The predictions come from the Fund's World Economic Outlook, its biannual publication looking at the global economic situation. Writing about the UK, the WEO says;

The recovery is progressing slowly, notably in the context of weak external demand and ongoing fiscal consolidation… Domestic rebalancing from the public to the private sector is being held back by deleveraging, tight credit conditions and economic uncertainty, while declining productivity growth and high unit labour costs are holding back much needed external rebalancing…
Consideration should be given to greater near-term flexibility in the fiscal adjustment path.

Merely calling for "consideration" to be given – rather than a demand for immediate "flexibility in the fiscal adjustment path" – provides an out, of sorts, for the Government. Expect to hear the chancellor confirming that he has "considered" the IMF's advice, but decided not to act on it, due to (something). Indeed, the FT cites Treasury sources already spinning the news, claiming the word choice "showed the fund was still sitting on the fence."

But as the Guardian reports, Oliver Blanchard, the Fund's Chief economist, did tell a press conference in the US today that:

The IMF would hold talks with the UK government in the coming months, to "see what can be done" about the pace of deficit reduction.
"In the face of very weak private demand it is time to consider adjustment to the original fiscal plan," Blanchard explained.

The WEO was more positive about the monetary side of the chancellor's record. Although it cautions that the Bank of England may find it hard to unwind the positions it has taken throughout four years of QE, which might force it to face significant trade-offs when it comes to fighting inflation in the future, it also praises the overall strategy of "monetary activism with fiscal responsibility and supply side reform".

That advice goes against the intervention of former MPC member Adam Posen, who today warned of the limits of Mark Carney's potential as Bank of England governor. But it gives Osborne enough cover to struggle on for a while longer.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Commission event. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On 31 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.