A sobering and uncomfortable comment on Brexit by Simon Nixon from the Business Section of THE TIMES, 15 November 2018:
This is merely the end of the beginning. All that Theresa May has achieved so far is to negotiate an agreement that will allow the UK to exit the European Union in good legal standing, without ripping up the arrangements that underpin its most important commercial and security relationships. For the most part, this should have been the easy bit. The prime minister was only required to reach agreement on three dossiers: the settlement of financial obligations, agreement on reciprocal rights for citizens and a mechanism to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. Only the last was complicated. Yet such has been the alarming ignorance of the British political class about the workings of the EU, the global trading system and the functioning of a modern economy that the country has been plunged into two and a half years of debilitating uncertainty — and that uncertainty will continue regardless of whether Mrs May gets her deal.
Consider just how steep a learning curve the British political class has been forced to climb. First prize for ignorance goes to the chief Brexit cheerleaders. There was David Davis’s absurd claim that a British government would go to Berlin the day after a Brexit vote to tie up a new trade deal, followed by his later claim that a future EU trade deal could deliver “exactly the same benefits” as membership. There were Liam Fox’s boasts that negotiating a future EU trade deal would be “the easiest in human history” and that the day after Brexit he would be in a position to sign 40 other trade deals. There were Boris Johnson’s repeated claims that “they need us more than we need them” and his insistence that German carmakers would ride to Britain’s rescue. Most recently there was the admission by Dominic Raab, the Brexit secretary, that he had not fully understood the importance of the Dover-Calais trade route.
Yet these three were merely the most visible tip of an iceberg of ignorance. Mrs May announced at the start of the process that the UK would no longer be subject to any rulings of the European Court of Justice, without apparently having the slightest idea what this might mean in practice. She continued to claim until the start of this year that she could complete not only the terms of divorce within the two-year Article 50 timetable but a full trade deal, too. She based her Brexit strategy around a fantastical plan to operate a dual customs border in which the UK would magically track goods circulating around Britain using technology that has not yet been invented to decide whether they qualified for British or EU tariffs — even though every independent trade expert said that this was impossible. If she was making these pronouncements on the basis of advice from her civil servants, then something is truly rotten in the British state.
Much of what has been said by the British state over the past two years been unreliable, to the detriment of the UK’s international standing. Ignorant bluster has served only to draw out the Brexit process, plunging the economy into debilitating uncertainty. There was never any question that the UK would need to pay the EU the £40 billion or so needed to settle outstanding obligations if it was to leave in good legal standing. Even the Brexiteers, who used to insist that the UK did not owe a penny, now say that they would be willing to pay £20 billion in settlement of obligations even if there was no deal. Yet this row held up the Brexit negotiations for much of the first year.
Similarly, it was always obvious, if only for economic reasons, that Britain would need to make a generous offer to EU citizens living in the UK regarding their future rights. It took Mrs May more than a year to acknowledge this.
None of this bodes well for what comes next. For while Mrs May’s deal may bring closure to one source of uncertainty, new sources will open up. The withdrawal agreement only sets out the terms of exit, leaving the nature of the future relationship to a vague, non-binding political declaration. Over the coming years, the British government will have to negotiate that relationship. This will be when the real decisions about future trading arrangements will have to be made. Indeed, all options remain on the table: the UK could remain in a permanent customs union, or opt for Norway-style membership of the single market, or seek a Canada-style trade deal, albeit that would require out special status for Northern Ireland. It could even renege on Mrs May’s deal, if a future government concluded it was in the national interest to seek a major rupture with the EU and turn Britain into an international legal pariah. And these debates must take place against the backdrop of a new cliff-edge in December 2020 when the agreed transition period is due to expire.
How this plays out will depend on the vagaries of British politics and who is prime minister. It also assumes that Mrs May succeeds in getting her withdrawal agreement through parliament. If she fails, Britain will enter a new world of uncertainty, one that the British state and political class have proved alarmingly ill-equipped to navigate.
Simon Nixon is chief leader writer of The Times