From the Customs Union to free movement, we are still just chatting amongst ourselves. When we put our plans to Europe, there will be a painful collision with realityby Jonathan Portes, Anand Menon / August 16, 2017 / Leave a comment
“Peace in our time.” Apparently that was how a Downing Street source described the joint article by Philip Hammond and Liam Fox published in the Telegraph last week on “transitional arrangements” after Brexit. And, appropriately enough, David Davis now has a piece of paper to wave on his trip to Brussels next week—the government’s “future partnership paper” on customs arrangements after Brexit. But will this truce prove lasting, or merely a prelude to a more protracted conflict? The whole debate, public and political, about “transition” is beset by (witting or unwitting) obfuscation over what the term means, why it might be necessary, what it might imply, how long it might last, and how achievable it might be. A degree of clarity on these issues might help illuminate what is a hugely important, though currently a misleading and potentially damaging debate.
A “phased process of implementation”
To start with semantics, transition is not the only phrase currently being used to describe the period between Britain formally leaving the European Union and the full implementation of the new relationship between them. Six months ago, in her Lancaster House speech, the prime minister signalled that the signing of a deal with the EU would be followed by a “phased process of implementation” (not a “transition period”—a phrase which was literally banned from use inside the Department for Exiting the EU).
This distinction goes to the heart of the question of what “transition” might be needed for. An “implementation phase” implies that the United Kingdom has managed to agree not only an Article 50—or divorce—deal with the European Union within the two years allowed by the EU treaty (29th March 2019 at the latest) but also one that sets out, in considerable detail, the nature of the future trading and regulatory relationship between the UK and the EU27.
At the time of her Lancaster House speech, Theresa May was expressing confidence that this could be achieved by the time the UK left the EU. Once it was explained to her that this was in fact not legally possible—as the EU can only sign trade deals with non-member states—she appeared to row back from this slightly. But until recently the government stuck, in public, to this broad position. Indeed, Brexit Secretary David Davis still insists…