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On Brexit, the EU’s Demand for a Short Transition is Short-Sighted

On Brexit, the EU’s Demand for a Short Transition is Short-Sighted

by Ian Cooper* (DCU Brexit Institute)

Tomorrow marks the exact halfway point in the two-year period between the UK’s triggering of Article 50 and “Brexit day” – 29 March 2019. Time is running short, which raises the question: Is the EU taking the right approach to the timing of Brexit? Strangely, the EU seems to be eager to speed up the process, whereas the interests of both sides would be better served by slowing it down.

Last week, there were two important events to do with the timing of Brexit.

On the one hand, the UK and the EU concluded a draft Withdrawal Agreement, later endorsed by the European Council, that would include a post-Brexit transition period lasting from 30 March 2019 to the end of December 2020 – exactly 21 months and two days. It did not include any provision for extending the transition (although this is subject to change).

Why 21 months? Because that was what the EU demanded. December 2020 is a convenient end-date because it happens to correspond with the end of the EU’s 7-year Multiannual Financial Framework. The UK had wanted a transition that was both longer, “about two years,” and more flexible, to be determined by the length of time needed to implement the agreement. But on this, as with so much else, the UK was forced to give way to the EU’s demand.

On the other hand, in the British Parliament, the House of Commons’ Brexit Committee released a report warning that 21 months was not enough time to conclude and ratify all the agreements that will define the Future EU-UK Partnership or to implement new controls at the UK border. It also warned that there was not enough time left before the March 2019 withdrawal deadline to conclude the “substance” of the Future Partnership, including a new trade pact – all of which would actually need to be agreed by October 2018, as the UK government has promised.

The report recommended, therefore, that the Withdrawal Agreement should include a provision for extension, and that if necessary the government should seek a “limited prolongation” of the transition. The report also recommended that the government should, if necessary, seek a “limited extension to the Article 50 time” – in other words, to postpone the date of Brexit. This provoked a furious row in the Brexit Committee (more on that below).

The Brexit Committee report reveals just how wrong-headed the EU’s demand for a short transition is. The EU has used the transition as a bargaining chip, presenting it as a concession granted to the UK even though it is obviously in the interest of both sides to avoid a cliff-edge or a disorderly withdrawal.

The difference between 21 and 24 months may seem insignificant, but the EU’s insistence on the former – because it accords with an arbitrary budget deadline – shows profoundly misplaced priorities.

The EU needs to exercise some clear-eyed thinking about what kind of future relationship with the UK is in its long-term strategic interests. The very best outcome would be a reversal of Brexit, but this is inconceivable without a change of government in the UK.   Absent this option, the EU should be seeking to achieve the softest possible Brexit that is consistent with its basic principles. To achieve this, the EU should be also seeking the slowest possible Brexit.

The EU should stand firm on matters of principle, but give way on matters of convenience. Citizens’ rights, the Irish border, the integrity of the single market – these are matters of principle. The end of the EU’s 7-year budgetary cycle is a matter of convenience.

This insistence on a short transition is a mistake which may presage more mistakes to come. If the EU is so unbending on the transition, then what would be the reaction if the UK were to ask, as the Brexit committee report also suggests, for an extension to the Article 50 period? This solution would avoid problems inherent to the transition, such as the UK become a “vassal state” of the EU, subject to its laws but outside of its decision-making structures.

Yet the EU might resist an extension of Article 50 beyond next March (which would require unanimous approval) because of another inconvenience of timing – the European Parliament elections scheduled for May 2019. If the UK’s EU membership were extended for just two months, this would disrupt plans to redistribute its seats and reduce the size of the EP. As the EU is “founded on representative democracy” (Article 10 TEU), then so long as the UK is a member state its citizens should be represented in the EP.

More generally, one suspects there is growing impatience for the UK to just hurry up and leave. Yet for the EU to secure the best possible outcome will require, above all, patience.

The fact is, the UK remains profoundly divided over Brexit. The EU must of course negotiate with Theresa May, who has chosen to align herself with the 51.9% of the British population that voted Leave, and to interpret that vote as a demand for a hard Brexit – leaving not only the EU but also the Single Market and the Customs Union. But the EU can at least pay heed to and give tacit support to voices of moderation in the UK, including many in the parliament – such as in the Brexit Committee.

The Brexit Committee is a cross-party group tasked with exercising parliamentary scrutiny over the government in its conduct of the Brexit process. Reflecting the current composition of the Commons, Conservatives are in the minority. A majority in the committee supported Remain, but there is a vocal minority of hard-core Leavers.

The Brexit Committee is chaired by Hilary Benn, a respected Labour politician. Benn, who recently gave a keynote address at the DCU Brexit Institute, professes to be a “passionate Remainer” who has nevertheless accepted that his side lost the referendum and that Brexit will happen. He personally favours some form of soft Brexit, including remaining in the Customs Union, as the outcome in the best interests of the UK. From his position as chair, he is determinedly using the tools of logic, carefully marshalled facts, and parliamentary scrutiny to advance this cause.

Mr. Benn strives to maintain consensus in the Brexit Committee, as this strengthens the hand of parliament in its oversight role. But last week’s report caused the consensus to break down, dividing the Remain-leaning majority who supported it from the minority of hard-core Leavers who voted against it.

The Leavers on the committee produced their own “minority report” (included in the minutes of the main report) that pooh-poohed the majority’s concerns about inadequate time, insisting that any delay would betray the will of the British people. One of the most vocal Leavers on the committee, Jacob Rees-Mogg, railed against the “high priests of Remain.”

But in reality the Committee majority was only doing its job, which is to hold the government to account for its wildly unrealistic Brexit timetable and its utter lack of planning. The report’s recommendations were based on an exhaustive analysis, laying out in painstaking detail the complexities of all the unresolved issues – mostly critically, the Irish border – that will almost certainly make it necessary to prolong the transition.

What does this mean for the EU’s position? The EU should reconsider its short-sighted insistence on a 21-month transition, even if this will require some kind of short-term fix to the budget; and it should introduce a provision to easily allow its extension. Moreover, it should remain open to the prospect of an extension of Article 50, even if this would disrupt plans for the EP elections. Otherwise, the EU is in effect working against the efforts of those like Hilary Benn and aligning itself with the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Ian Cooper is a Research Fellow at the DCU Brexit Institute. He has previously held positions at the European University Institute, the University of Cambridge, and the University of Oslo.

*Please note that this work represents the views of the author and not those of the DCU Brexit Institute.