Triggering Article 50 – as the Prime Minister has done today – is a necessary precondition to negotiating anything about Britain’s future relationship with the EU. Since the Brexit vote, all the central pillars of EU governance – the Commission, the Parliament, the Council – have been united in clarity on this single, vital point. No ‘pre-talks’, no preliminary agreements, no scheduling of issues until Britain submits its formal declaration of intent. It was for this reason that, in spite of very real and public anger (including from many arch-Brexiteers) Theresa May was simply unable to offer EU citizens resident here a binding promise about their future, even had she wanted to. British politics has had a surreal, dream like quality since last June, with Brexit hovering like a dark cloud shifting in shape and hard to define. With Article 50 now activated, at last the cloud breaks and we will begin to see what it contained. Now for the downpour.
Even the most ardent supporters of leaving the EU confess – sometimes in public, more often in private – that it all looks dauntingly complicated. There is an incredible amount of work to do. Negotiations on everything from our ‘divorce bill’ to our future trading relationship to freedom of movement to defence and security must now begin at pace. Then there is the deadline; we have two years flat to define and agree our terms. And, as if this weren’t challenging enough, we must bear in mind that this is not a one-on-one discussion. David Davis and his team must embark on de facto parallel discussions with each of the EU’s key institutions, with 27 national governments (shifting, politically, as time goes on) and with Britain’s own business and political communities. This is not so much three dimensional chess as it is quantum mechanics – views vary as to the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU’s suitability for the fiendish task he has been set.
During the referendum, voters were told that the EU would be compelled by economic self-interest to do a deal, and a favourable one at that. There is some truth to this. German car makers, for example, will not wish to be forced out of a lucrative consumer market such as ours. But surely it is time for our politicians to begin to recognise that politics is more complicated – more emotional, less rational – than economic modelling? The political interests of the European Union and its constituent members are not reducible to the economic interests of their major industrial players. German car manufacturers lost out badly when the latest round of sanctions against Russia, Putin and his associates meant orders from the East dried up. Their pleas for a loosening of the blockade have fallen on deaf ears.
Theresa May, aware of the incredible challenge that faces her Government and her country, has tried to simplify the discussion. Taking membership of the Single Market off the table May has dismayed some of her ‘Continuity-Remain’ colleagues but it has also sucked complexity out of the negotiations. So, too, has her and her Chancellor’s concession that of course Britain will pay its debts. Anywhere that options for clarity and straight-forward deal-making can be found, May and her Ministers will be tempted. This is also the reasoning behind leaving the door open for some sort of ‘transitional arrangement’ – through which Britain might pay for continued access to the Single Market whilst a broader trade deal (likely to take between 2 and 10 additional years of negotiation) is thrashed out. And despite Labour’s ‘six tests’ – laid out by Keir Starmer this week – she has managed the politics well, so that it will be difficult for the opposition to vote against whatever she comes up with. The alternative will be dropping out with no arrangements and falling back on WTO rules; a risky proposition. Buying time, buying clarity, buying access – this is May’s transactional and pragmatic approach.
But what none of this will do is buy Britain love. Our neighbours feel hurt and feel threatened by the choice we have made. Of course, Theresa May has a strong mandate to deliver on the outcome of the referendum but acknowledging this should not preclude us from understanding the pain and anger our decision has caused. Senior members of the European Parliament have reacted to today by expressing, ferociously, their obligation to fight for the EU as an institution – which means they are gearing up for a fight, at least publicly. Article 50 is merely the beginning of this process and it frees us to test the water and feel our way. It remains to be seen whether we will be capable of winning the emotional battle alongside the transactional one. Any deal that doesn’t damage Britain requires goodwill – thus the Prime Minister’s conciliatory tone today and repeated appeals for a ‘special’ and ‘deep’ relationship. She knows that if we are to do a good deal we will need to retain and regain some love and affection from the continent. Today’s optics and rhetoric are aimed at inspiring it but many feel that we have left it too late. We have 2 years left, the clock starts now.