There will be little time this parliament for May to focus on anything elseby Owen Smith / February 6, 2017 / Leave a comment
Brexit Secretary David Davis ©PA/PA Wire/PA Images “Humongous” isn’t a word you often see in Foreign Office memoranda, but it’s the one that former UK Ambassador to the European Union, Ivan Rogers, reached for when asked to describe the scale of the task facing the UK in disentangling ourselves from forty years of partnership with the EU. I suspect, however, that Rogers may have thought he was being relatively restrained, as his colourful choice of adjective is barely adequate to convey the size of the legislative, economic and diplomatic operation that Brexit will eventually entail. This is part of the reason why last week I voted against the Article 50 Bill—and why detailed scrutiny of the government’s Brexit plan during the coming debate in parliament is absolutely essential. You wouldn’t think Brexit would be so complicated. Not, that is, if you picked up the skimpy government White Paper on the subject, knocked up overnight, one suspects, by Brexit Secretary David Davis’s beleaguered staff. Indeed, it’s the whitest White Paper I’ve ever seen, with a fifth of its pages mostly blank or blocked out. But its spare text is a joyful read: a masterclass of civil service understatement, peppered with moments of such exuberant optimism as would make Dr Pangloss blush. According to the White Paper, the government doesn’t remember the referendum as an ill-tempered affair, fuelled by lies about the NHS or the prospect of the entire Turkish population moving to Tunbridge Wells. Instead, it says: “The referendum…was an expression of optimism that our best days are still to come.” Nor do they recall the threats made just days ago by Theresa May to undercut and undermine our European neighbours when Brexit goes bad. Now, instead: “We are confident that the UK and the EU can reach a positive deal on our future partnership… and will approach the negotiations in this spirit.” And, best of all, gone is any governmental nervousness about the humongousness of the challenge to turn decades worth of EU laws into UK statute overnight. Because the Great Repeal Bill has got that covered, and will “convert the acquis—the body of existing EU law—into domestic law in the shake of a lamb’s tail.” OK, I made the bit about the tail up, but you get the jaunty gist of it. Now, amusing as this self-delusion may seem, it belies the reality that the government appears to be deceiving both itself and the citizens of the UK about the scale and complexity of Brexit. To deceive us about how hard it will be, and how little time will be left for government to do anything else throughout this parliament—no matter how grave the crisis in Social Care or our NHS, or in the classrooms of our schools. Because the reality is that the acquis, airily waved into UK law in paragraph 1.1 of the White Paper, is at least 80,000 pages long, or nearer 170,000 if you take into account all of the law created by the EU since 1957 that still has some application in the UK. Either way, it’s enough paperwork to balance a weighing scale with a one tonne weight on the other side, or to stretch end to end from Cardiff to London. And that’s just for starters. Indeed, that may be the easy bit. Far tougher for the country will be agreeing and then paying the price of disengaging from the EU budget. Estimates for that run to £50bn or so. Then there’s the deal that will need to be struck about the rights of EU citizens here, and those of our citizens in the EU. The government says it is ready to strike a deal on this as soon as the EU is willing, but few think that getting a lasting and flexible deal is going to be straightforward. Especially when a smart negotiator will always argue that nothing is settled until everything is settled. And if that is the attitude the EU takes, then issues such as the future location of EU institutions like the European Medicines Agency or the European Banking Authority, both currently in London, will need to be resolved before any final package can be agreed. As will the status of any international treaties to which the EU and the UK are both signatories. Finally, there’s the critical question of transitional arrangements that may be required to bridge the gap between the clarity of our current arrangements and the parlous future we’re apparently aiming for. Perhaps that looks something like Norway’s membership of the European Economic Area, the EEA. That, at least, would make sense, and would give some certainty to our businesses and citizens about where we might eventually pitch up after Brexit. But that’s probably a little too tame for this government. So there’s only one piece of advice that’s really worth giving: hang on to your hats, ladies and gentlemen, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.