A former top-ranking British diplomat says that the hard part is yet to comeby Peter Ricketts / January 9, 2018 / Leave a comment
Brexit sucked most of the oxygen out of British politics in 2017, leaving little to spare for domestic policy priorities—and still less for anything resembling an active foreign policy.
Yet 2017 was the preamble, the easy bit. 2018 is the year when real choices will have to be made, which will define Britain’s relations with Europe for the next generation. The way in which British government has handled the negotiations so far doesn’t give much ground for optimism that wise choices will be made: but it does give some clues as to how 2018 may play out.
Actually, the word negotiations is a bit of a misnomer for what happened in 2017. The EU specified the issues which would have to be resolved as part of the first phase of the Article 50 process. The EU27 stayed united behind the Commission negotiators. A divided British cabinet with a weak negotiating hand found they had no alternative but to align themselves step-by-step with the EU’s requirements.
That was clearest in the case of the financial settlement, where Britain’s position went from “go whistle” to agreeing to pay our debts of at least £40 billion in the space of a few months. But it also applied to the other areas as well.
The process of gradual retreat on the British side was not elegant. But it was done without too much fire and fury from the Brexit camp. The reason for that is relevant to 2018. The overriding priority for the Brexiteers is to get Britain out of the EU. They found in 2017 that, when push came to shove, they were willing to pay any price demanded by the EU to achieve that goal.
Read more: Theresa May—shuffled out
The same logic will probably apply to the next priority in the negotiations, to define the terms of a transitional deal. It is now obvious that it will be impossible to reach a full agreement on Britain’s future relations with the EU by the time the Article 50 clock runs down in March 2019. So a transitional arrangement is essential to buy more time for negotiations and to stave off the famous cliff edge.
Here again, Britain is in a weak negotiating position. A disorderly departure in 2019 with no agreement on the future would be hugely…