Why hard Brexiteers talking up a “bespoke” deal are deluded

If the government wants to leave the single market, the customs union and the European Court of Justice, only one option remains.

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Good politics is about managing expectations. And there is too little of that surrounding the domestic Brexit debate in the UK. Each twist in the Brexit negotiations is cited by the Brexit-supporting press as the latest evidence that the EU is “punishing” Britain for its decision to leave. Every stumbling block produced new culprits to blame: the EU’s Chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Britain’s own civil service, MPs, and institutions.

But the reality is that none of these developments are surprising. In fact, they are the logical consequences of the position of the EU and its member states (which they have been consistently and clearly been articulating for the past two years), and the Conservative party’s own Brexit red lines.

This process of Britain being mugged by reality is illustrated by the Prime Minister’s set-piece speeches on Brexit. The evolution started with the triumphalist “citizens of nowhere” speech at Conservative Party Conference in 2016, when Theresa May was still the tabula rasa who would deliver a Brexit that would be all things to everyone. In last week’s Mansion House speech, by contrast, the PM finally admitted that Brexit will involve trade-offs, and won’t be easy.

Bound by domestic political constraints, however, the Prime Minister has not been able to articulate the next evident consequences of the government’s Brexit position. And yet, they are obvious. 

In her Florence speech in September last year, May asked the EU to agree to a two-year transition period for the UK after it leaves in March 2019. The fact that the UK needs this has been clear since 2016. There was simply no way that the UK would have been able to negotiate a new agreement with the EU under the two-year period allotted under Article 50, the EU’s formal exit mechanism.

Proclamations and assertions by leading Brexiteers that a new deal would all be “agreed in an afternoon” have proven to be empty rhetoric. This was of course magnified by the fact that the British government triggered Article 50 without any clarity where it wanted to end up. It has taken until the Mansion House speech for the PM to spell out finally, where it would like to go.

The transition is what business has been lobbying for. To be clear, the transition, which will last until December 2020, will not be bespoke. That means the following: while the the UK will be outside the EU, it will no longer be represented on any of the EU’s institutions and bodies. However, it will still be a rule-taker, with no say on how those rules are made.

Concretely this means: accepting continued free movement; accepting the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, accepting all new EU laws, not being able to conclude any new free trade deals with other countries and continuing to pay into the EU budget.

Brexiteers have grudgingly accepted this “implementation period” as a price to pay in order to reach the final destination. Except, the transition period is simply that — it is not an implementation period because there will be nothing to implement when the UK leaves.

Which brings me to my second point. Publicly, the line is still that UK will be able to have new deal in place when it leaves in March 2019. This is nonsense.

In the best case scenario, if negotiations don’t break down, the UK will have agreed the terms of its divorce and transition when it departs. These talks have to be wrapped up and drafted into legally binding commitments by September 2018. They will have to go through a process of parliamentary ratification, both in the EU and in the UK.

We are technically now in “Phase II” of the Brexit talks. Yet realistically all that we will get on “the future relationship” will be a wafer-thin political agreement indicating the UK’s and EU’s direction of travel. This was spelled out concretely in the European Council Conclusions in December last year. The actual details will only be thrashed out after 2019. 

And, this will be a process that continues for many years. It is likely, in my view, that the transition period itself, already stretching until 2020, will have to be extended. It’s just not politically expedient for either the EU or the UK to admit that now.

The third point is that the EU will offer the UK a Canada-style free trade agreement. It will not be the kind of bespoke relationship that May asked for in her Mansion House speech. 

If the government wants to leave the single market (because it wants to put an end to free movement of people), and the customs union (because it wants to set it own trade policy), and to leave the direct jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, a UK-EU FTA is the only option remaining. This should come as no surprise. 

An FTA is fine for the UK on goods, but it is not enough for the UK on services, and does not encompass the whole host of the EU agencies and initiatives May said the UK would quite like to participate in after it leaves.

The FTA will be bespoke to the degree that no two FTAs the EU has agreed with a third-country are identical, but this will not be anywhere close to the level of access the UK would like. Last week, May argued that the UK could remain closely aligned to the EU in areas that are expedient to the UK, whilst diverging in others.

European Council President Donald Tusk quickly shot this suggestion down. Clearly, it’s not in the EU’s long-term strategic or economic interests to offer the UK a better deal outside than the (bespoke) deal that it enjoyed when it was a member.

The sooner we grasp this, the better. If good politics is about managing expectations, then British politicians should level will the public, and admit that we are still many, many years away from taking back control.

Nina Schick is the director of data and polling at Rasmussen Global, a political consultancy. She specialises in EU policy and Brexit.