No sooner has Britain fallen over one European hurdle than it falls over another. This week, as we gear up for phase two of negotiations and the hard Brexiteers really start to apply the pressure, Britain looks set to hit a few more.
The single biggest problem is that the government does not look to have learned the lessons of phase one. Last year, the UK spent months demanding the impossible. It used up valuable weeks lobbying the EU for concessions it was never going to get, before eventually accepting that it would—for instance—have to pay tens of billions of pounds of liabilities.
The lesson was clear: when the UK refuses to put forward realistic proposals it just wastes time. Yet with further talks just round the corner, the government seems to have learned nothing.
Two particularly egregious examples have made headlines over recent days. The first was the PM’s insistence last week that EU citizens arriving in the UK during the Brexit transition would have a different status to those who arrive before.
The second—even worse—was No 10’s insistence this morning that the UK will not remain in any customs union at all with the EU.
It is worth taking each of these in turn.
When it comes to transition, the EU has repeatedly made clear that any such period will have to be a “standstill.” The status quo is all that’s on offer. Either the UK follows full EU law for the interim, or it gets nothing. Theresa May’s comments flatly contradict this. She is proposing a new system—and on a point that relates to free movement, one of the cherished “four freedoms.”
This is a battle she will not win. The EU will not budge on a red line set out in its negotiating mandate. It is just a matter of time until an embarrassing climbdown.
The customs union statement is troubling in a different way. The issue here isn’t just that the EU will reject the UK’s position, but that the UK’s position is potentially internally inconsistent.
Hilary Benn, Chair of the Brexit Committee, has rightly warned that without a customs union the hard border in Ireland could return. Yet this was explicitly ruled out in the phase one agreement. If we take the government at its word, this is a classic case of have-your-cake-and-eat-it syndrome. The EU will simply laugh us out of the room.
So what’s going on? Incompetence is one explanation, and with this administration you can never rule it out.
More likely however is that May is playing to the eurosceptic gallery. We know from reports over the weekend that they are considering mounting a challenge. The PM wants to reassure them that she’s demanding the best for Britain.
This cannot go on. Eventually she must put forward a coherent proposal. A break-down in talks would cause harm on the continent; it would be a disaster on our own shores. Radical Brexiteers would leap with glee over the cliff; saner politicians, including the prime minister, understand the immense economic disruption that would result.
It is therefore just a matter of time before May is forced to face the Brexit ultras down. Whether she will succeed is anyone’s guess, but already the customs union line is starting to blur.
In the meantime, it is dire that time is being wasted like this. There are issues of urgent importance—the rolling over of EU free trade agreements with third countries, for example—which will require concerted effort to make progress on and which the UK can influence. Any normal administration would be prioritising them. Yet here we are. Britain is again frittering away the days.
And all the while Article 50 is ticking down.
Brexit Britain: the future of industry is a publication which examines the future of UK manufacturing through the prism of the recently released Industrial Strategy White Paper. The report features contributions from the likes of Greg Clark MP, Miriam Gonzalez, Richard Graham MP and Frances O’Grady.
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