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Saturday, 24 March 2018

Brexit negotiations: Obligation without representation (Economist)

"AGAINST a backdrop displaying the text of Britain’s draft withdrawal agreement, colour-coded to show areas agreed and yet to be tackled, Michel Barnier, the European Union’s Brexit negotiator, and David Davis, Britain’s Brexit secretary, announced a transition deal on March 19th. It was hard even for the ebullient Mr Davis to hide the fact that Britain had agreed to a “status quo” transition period, in which it will maintain most obligations to the EU while losing its voting rights. At least business was pleased that there will be no cliff-edge exit next March—assuming, that is, the two sides are able to reach some kind of Brexit deal.

What was striking was the acquiescence of most pro-Brexit Tory MPs. Jacob Rees-Mogg, who once likened a status quo transition to being a vassal state, said Britain had rolled over without even getting its tummy tickled. But he and his allies still gave Theresa May’s government the benefit of the doubt. In effect, they value the prize of Brexit next March so highly that they will accept almost any terms for it. This should reduce their influence on Mrs May in the remaining negotiations.

One awkward concession concerned fish. Many Brexiteers say they were promised that Britain would take back full control of fisheries next March. Even Michael Gove, the minister in charge, admitted to being disappointed that this has proved impossible. Britain will now stay in the EU’s common fisheries policy until the start of 2021. Scottish Tories are especially upset. Several said they could not sell such a betrayal to their constituents, and 14 MPs wrote to Mrs May urging her to reject the transition and threatening to vote against a Brexit deal later this year if she does not.

For all their protests, including sending a fishing boat up the Thames to Parliament, Mrs May is bound to accept the transition at the EU summit that was meeting as we went to press. She has no choice. Fisheries is too small an industry to be worth jeopardising a future Brexit deal. Just as in 1973, when Britain first joined the club, fishing is likely to be sacrificed for the greater good, however loudly trawlermen howl.

The real concern about the transitional deal is not about vassaldom or fish. It is rather the short time given for it. Mrs May had asked for a deal lasting “around two years”; some ministers openly hoped for longer. Yet Mr Barnier is offering just 21 months, to the end of 2020. Trade experts doubt that a comprehensive trade deal of the sort that Mrs May wants can be negotiated, let alone ratified, that quickly. And the text of the transitional deal leaves it unclear whether an extension will be legally possible, let alone politically so.

A big problem is that Mrs May has wasted so much time since triggering the Article 50 withdrawal process last March, not least by holding a general election last June. A majority of the Commons Brexit committee is calling for an extension of Article 50’s two-year deadline. The home affairs committee similarly says more time is needed to ensure continuing co-operation on justice and domestic security. Time, or rather the lack of it, has become one of the most pressing concerns about Brexit."