On the day Theresa May triggered Article 50, having comfortably won a parliamentary vote on the subject, Remainers howled with despair. But even from a pro-Brexit perspective, some warned, the Prime Minister was acting precipitously.
Rather than initiating EU withdrawal on 29 March 2017, they argued, May should wait until there was cabinet agreement on the UK’s negotiating stance, and until after the French and German elections. By starting the two-year countdown before these matters had been resolved, the government was squandering valuable time.
More than six months after Article 50 was invoked, such warnings have been vindicated. The UK has yet to begin trade talks with the EU as issues including citizens’ rights, Britain’s divorce payment and the Irish border remain unresolved. Owing to cabinet divisions over the length and nature of the Brexit transition period, ministers have spent more time negotiating with each other than member states.
When the EU drew up the divorce proceedings it did so with the intention of maximising control. The withdrawal deal that Britain reaches must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states, representing 65 per cent of the EU’s population. The two-year deadline for leaving can only be extended by unanimous agreement.
May’s continued assertion that “no deal is better than a bad deal” is defended by allies as a standard negotiating tactic. But as Stephen noted earlier, the government is undertaking few of the measures required to make this threat credible (such as building new customs facilities in Dover and hiring thousands of extra government officials).
The haste with which Article 50 was triggered reflected the political pressure on May (and her desire to sweep up Ukip voters). In the view of some Conservative cabinet ministers and MPs, 29 March was rather late in the day.
Ever since their narrow referendum victory, Leavers have feared that Brexit could be thwarted. The longer the UK waited before invoking Article 50, the greater the risk that public opinion could turn against them. Theresa May’s refusal to deny receiving legal advice that the measure is revocable supports such fears.
But though the early triggering of Article 50 has reduced the risk of Brexit being blocked, it has also made it even harder for the UK to secure an adequate deal.