The thinking is that any deal can be unpicked at a later date. But does it work like that?by Aarti Shankar / August 14, 2018 / Leave a comment
In recent weeks the government has stepped up its rhetoric on a no deal Brexit. Liam Fox recently suggested that this has become the most likely outcome due to “intransigence” from the European Union. Jeremy Hunt has toured member states warning of the geostrategic risks of no UK-EU agreement.
However, another approach is also gaining traction among Brexiters—that the government should just “get over the line” in negotiations, agree an orderly exit in March next year, and sort out the future relationship later on. Proponents of this strategy suggest the UK could agree to a Norway-style arrangement to avoid the economic turmoil of “no deal” in March, and then over time move to a looser agreement with the EU. A suggestion along these lines recently featured on Conservative Home. Elsewhere, the Financial Times reports that Michael Gove has privately raised this option.
While some Leavers would be strongly opposed to accepting a European Economic Area-style arrangement (especially if accompanied by a customs union), other Brexit-supporters view this as a sensible strategy. It would remove the intense time pressure of Article 50. The politics of UK-EU negotiations will change fundamentally once the UK is no longer a member state, and a future British government could have more flexibility to renegotiate a looser arrangement. In any event, the UK’s relationship with the bloc will not be static—it will undoubtedly evolve over time, and the terms of any Brexit agreement would always be revisited.
Some Leavers may also be concerned that MPs could vote down the government’s deal with the EU at the last minute, with the ensuing domestic political chaos delaying or even halting Brexit altogether. Perhaps they calculate that a Norway-style agreement could receive enough parliamentary support—although heavy reliance on Labour votes to pass this would spell trouble for the future of the Conservative Party.
A strategy of “getting over the line” holds some weight when it comes to determining the future relationship. It is true, after all, that the political declaration on the future relationship, unlike the withdrawal deal, will not be a legally binding treaty. The UK may agree in principle to an EEA-style future arrangement to secure an orderly exit and the stability of a transition period—but the real negotiations on the long-term relationship will only take place after Brexit day, and both the UK and EU would formally be able to shift away from the framework laid out in March.
Elsewhere, reports suggest that instead of pushing for an EEA-style framework, the EU is considering simply drawing up a brief declaration on the future relationship, with few concrete details on what the final agreement should look like—this has been termed a “blind Brexit.” It was never likely that a fully formed deal would be finalised before the end of the negotiating period. But EU officials now also suggest there is significant political value in agreeing a vague declaration, arguing that this could give the fragile UK prime minister some breathing space to pass a deal through her deadlocked parliament.
However, the UK government is unlikely to accept a fully “blind” Brexit—particularly given the political capital it invested in finally putting the hard-fought Chequers proposal on the table. Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab has already pushed back against the idea that the political agreement should carry little formal weight, and called for payment of the financial settlement to be conditional on finalising the future agreement. It is not clear the government will succeed in this strategy, but it is evidently unwilling to sign away £39bn without strong commitments on the future relationship—including engagement with key Chequers proposals.
Yet, a tactic of “making it over the line” in these negotiations does not rest only on agreeing the framework for future relations. The biggest obstacle to concluding the Withdrawal Agreement by March is finding a common position on the Irish backstop. Here, the government should be wary of swallowing too much in the name of getting across the line.