Britain’s greatest Brexit failure

‘There is no one in England who knows what is wanted’

‘There seems to be no one person in England who knows what is wanted, who says so quite clearly, and who has such prestige and fighting experience that everyone will accept his opinion and get on with it… At present there are too many people in England who think they know what is wanted; but they all disagree with each other; and they have got the basic set-up wrong; and they bellyache about non-essentials, they do not really know what are the essentials.’

Bernard Montgomery, the famed British army general, wrote those words on 22 August 1943 during the Allied invasion of Sicily. But people unfamiliar with the second world war could be forgiven for thinking they describe Britain’s management of its exit from the European Union, the greatest test of its relationship with Europe in more than 70 years.

It seems possible, perhaps even probable, that the ruling Conservative party will soon go through the painful process of a leadership election. Even if Prime Minister Theresa May were to win, the challenge would prompt serious talk about the end of her premiership and weaken her already frail position. If somebody else takes May’s place in Downing Street, it would almost certainly be a Brexiteer promoting a tougher British attitude in talks with the EU.

The main point, however, is the time factor. A leadership contest could result in a couple of months being cut out of an already tight negotiating timetable. This will further exasperate EU partners who watched May contest a general election between April-June 2017 after she triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty on 29 March, which started the two-year period for Brexit negotiations.

Britain’s greatest tactical failure has been to pursue a transitional agreement bridging the gap between leaving the EU and striking a new deal. The consequence is that Britain has turned the talks into two overlapping and occasionally conflicting negotiations – one on the terms for withdrawal, and another on a prospective transition. In theory a transition period looks beneficial, as it would give businesses more time to adjust. In practice, it just adds to confusion about Britain’s future relations with its largest trading partner. Things were not helped by the leak this week of a government impact report that says Britain will be worse off under whatever variety of Brexit is decided.

Domestically, debate about a transition period is disastrous. Brexiteers believe that those who reject the result of the June 2016 exit referendum may use such a period as a foundation to argue for a second referendum. Brexiteers also point out that during a multiyear transition period, the UK will get the worst of all worlds, having to accept EU rules with no influence. On the other side, Remainers will debate whether this uncertainty can be turned, precisely as their opponents fear, into a new referendum that could reverse Brexit. It is difficult to spot the political majority supporting this course.

It would have been better for Britain at an early stage to seek an extension of the two-year deadline prescribed by Article 50. This would have required unanimous support from the 27 other EU countries. No one can know how such a tactic would have been received, but it is likely to have been achievable. It was clear from the start, however, that two years is not enough time for such colossal negotiations.

Joergen Oerstroem Moeller is Senior Research Fellow, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, and a former State Secretary at the Danish foreign ministry.

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