Christopher Howarth is a senior researcher working in the House of Commons. Prior to this he worked for Open Europe, as a Conservative Foreign Affairs Adviser and senior researcher to a Shadow Europe Minister.
At every Conservative party conference, the press inevitably focuses on personalities and ‘Tory splits’. This year they are drawn to the subject of Brexit. I don’t blame them, it’s easy, entertaining and instantaneous copy. It’s also tells us little about the real state of the Brexit process. The truth is Brexit is on track, it’s being delivered, its inevitable, and there is a real Tory consensus on making it a success.
Before moving on, let’s remind ourselves how truly remarkable that is.
When David Cameron stood for re-election in 2015, he promised to attempt to reform the EU and call a Brexit referendum “by the end of 2017”. However, on Wednesday we will not be treated to a speech from the Prime Minister, David Cameron, rallying Conservatives to back a “substantial” EU reform package and vote Remain in an October 2017 referendum.
Equally, Cameron, as Prime Minister, will not be talking on Wednesday about how the Party should come together and accept a majority remain vote and a prolongation of our undignified role as an adjunct to an unreformed EU.
No, we are in a remarkablely positive and largely unexpected place; we have a new Prime Minister committed to the UK leaving the EU and making a success of Brexit.
We are not yet there, but it’s clear the Brexit cup is not, as some gloomily believe, half empty but in reality very nearly full. This is why:
Firstly, Article 50 has been triggered. This inevitably leads to Brexit at the latest by March 2019. It cannot, either politically or legally, be reversed. Even the staunchest supporters of the EU realise this, there is little point in fighting old battles.
Secondly, the question of Single Market and Customs Union membership is settled. The 2017 election saw a remarkable 85 per cent of the vote go to parties committed to leaving both. In any case they never were an option.
Cameron and Nick Clegg realised before the referendum that accepting EU laws without any say or influence was not a prospect any UK politician could accept. It was only a matter of time before those less well versed in the mechanics of the EEA and the Single Market accepted this point as well. There is near consensus: the parties, the electorate, even business lobby groups now accept we are leaving the Single Market and Customs Union, a truly remarkable turn of events.
The third piece of the Brexit equation is also now falling into place, the negotiation with the EU27. For this to start the EU27 needed certainty that the UK was leaving. This realisation came far later than in the UK, but the voices of mainstream UK politicians have now finally cut through the chorus of pro-EU voices and interests happily telling non-UK audiences that they were able to keep the UK in the EU. The EU and the member states and EU business lobbies now believe we are leaving.
It is understandable that many wish the UK had left the EU yesterday, or indeed never joined. However, we are leaving, and leaving far faster than nearly everyone expected. So where will it go from here?
We have now had the German and French elections. Not all elections are equal in the EU. The Franco-German desire to avoid having an EU discussion with their electorate ended up dictating the pace of David Cameron’s failed EU reform process and has also delayed the exit talks. They are now over, and we will soon have a functioning German Government to deal with.
The talks can now progress and there is a remarkable degree of agreement. The EU set out very early that it would not accept the UK within its Single Market if the UK did not accept all its rules including EU immigration. We may argue that issues, such as free movement, are not fundamental to a market, but the EU, over many painful rounds of Cameron negotiations have made it quite clear it does not agree. This no longer a problem; we do not wish to remain in the Single Market. A UK/EU consensus can now form around the free trade agreement as set out by the Prime Minister.
We also have an UK/EU consensus on the issue of EU citizens’ rights. The EU was unwilling at first to address the issue of UK citizens living on the continent; they now do – we now have two virtually identical EU & UK offers. There is more work to do, not least identify how many EU citizens are in the country and who is going to be granted a right to stay, but there is a near consensus.
Likewise on Northern Ireland we have a consensus not to impose tariffs and unnecessary border checks. This inevitably leads to a consensus on agreeing EU / UK tariff free trade, even if the EU and Ireland are not yet ready to say so.
So what is outstanding? Many smaller issues and two main issues: the EU’S demands for a divorce settlement and the UK’s request for an implementation period.
Seen from the EU, granting an ‘implementation’ period is a concession that can be used to extract further payments. However, it is a time limited pressure point. The EU27 has played its hand well, using the delay, for elections and process reasons and the pressure piled on by UK lobby groups to force the UK Government to demand a speedy conclusion. But there comes a point where UK business will start to do what it should already have done and Government is doing and plan for a no deal scenario.
If we accept there may be no immediate agreement on an implementation period to an agreed new trade partnership we can discover there are multiple other options that are all perfectly workable. At that point, the pressure exerted on the UK Government via business reduces and so does the need to pay for a deal. We will, over the next few months, arrive at this point.
The EU27 are not making agreement easy, but we would not expect that at this stage. Demanding the continued control of its Court over a third party is a bold claim, rightly characterised as akin to the UK’S unequal Treaties with China. Likewise, insisting the UK remains open to EU27 emigrants for another two years smacks of dogmatism, especially as new arrivals post Brexit are unlikely to accrue permanent residency rights. I cannot imagine why the EU would insert difficult demands into its negotiating hand!
The EU will be a tough negotiator, we would expect nothing less. Negative briefings, exerting political pressure on UK politicians, mobilising their own industry lobbies to exert pressure, but people are beginning to see through this and EU industry which does not wish to create new trade barriers with the UK will soon make itself heard.
We are approaching a decision point: either the EU ups its game and accepts a modest payment in return for a pragmatic deal, or it gets nothing. Either way, the UK is still leaving the EU.
There is much work to do. Parliament needs to deliver legislative certainty via the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, departments need to implement practical plans for Brexit including new customs and immigration processes and upgraded IT systems. We need to work out new policies in new areas, and agriculture, fishing and immigration. That is the stuff of Government.
Those who supported Brexit should look to the positives. We are in a remarkable place, we are leaving. While detractors, EU states, and their affiliates, try to improve the EU’s hand and destabilise the Government, we enter the negotiations knowing we are leaving the EU and that we have strong cards to play.