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Analysis
Don’t rush Brexit fences too early

Don’t rush Brexit fences too early

Europe's changing political landscape 

by Denis MacShane in London

Thu 18 Aug 2016

The favourite saying of François Mitterrand, French president in 1981-95, was ‘Laissez le temp au temps’ – ‘Give time a chance’. That might be the watchword for Theresa May, Britain’s prime minister, when she returns from holidaying in the Swiss Alps and tries to work out the next moves on the three-dimensional Brexit chessboard.

She might copy Harold Macmillan, a former prime minister, who put up a notice in Downing Street with a quote from The Gondoliers by Gilbert and Sullivan: ‘Quiet, calm deliberation disentangles every knot.’

The decision of the 23 June plebiscite is clear, but the terms on which Brexit will happen are not. Much disentangling is required.

So far the smartest suggestion has come from Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor. He has urged May to wait until the UK knows with whom it will be negotiating – which will not be clear for at least 12 months.

Having watched May over 15 years in parliament, I would judge her to be a politician who never rushes decisions and avoids the temptation to look for a headline just for the sake of appearing in the tabloid press.

When she makes a mistake she quickly shuts down the problem. At the beginning of the European Union referendum campaign she gave a speech in which she stated that she wanted to leave the European Convention of Human Rights but stay in the EU. Now she has sensibly done a U-turn – finding the parliamentary time and majority to leave the ECHR while negotiating Brexit is not possible politics.

May should leave time for all stakeholders – the banks (including the global financial community), commercial services, professions and manufacturers – to come together and work out what they want and need from Brexit. To rush for a Brexit divorce in the next 12 months without knowing the political lie of the land across the Channel would be foolish in the extreme.

This time next year we will have a new French president. Even the most fervent of his disciples believe there is little chance of President François Hollande rising from his current 14% standing in the polls to win a second term in the Elysée. Either Nicolas Sarkozy will win his come-back bid or, more likely, Alain Juppé, prime minister of France in the 1990s, will emerge.

In Germany, Angela Merkel still appears to be mistress of all she surveys. But by September 2017 she will have been chancellor for 12 years. She has to decide whether to get out while still admired or await the fate of all German chancellors who hold on to office only to see their reputation fade, as happened with Helmut Kohl.

Italy and the Netherlands may also have new leadership by 2017, while Spain is without a stable or commanding government.

The City of London and the broader UK economy need time to weigh up which is more important – retaining access to the single market, as World Trade Organisation membership does not cover services, or to start fussing about requiring visas and work permits for all the Europeans who contribute so much to the London economy.

Key questions to consider are can the City retain its $120tn volume of euro trades and clearing outside the EU? Do UK manufacturers want to lose automatic single market access and begin filling in endless forms required for goods they want to export? And with the UK exporting 4.6% of its services to Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, and 39.4% to the EU, how can the latter be secured?

Some devout anti-Europeans will complain. But until the UK Independence party wins a block of seats in parliament, and with the party's European parliament members stepping down in 2019, the era of Nigel Farage, UKIP's colourful former leader, is over.

The majority of Conservative MPs are Remainers, with star Leavers like Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and Angela Leadsom tied down by ministerial salaries. The Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn, who is likely to be re-elected on 24 September, will be obsessively inward-looking, as it was in the 1950s and 1980s.

May should be under no effective pressure if she decides to avoid any mad rush to Brexit.

The watchword should be festina lente – make haste slowly.

Denis MacShane is a former UK Minister of Europe, a Senior Advisor at Avisa Partners, and a member of the OMFIF Advisory Board. His book Brexit: Why Britain left Europe will be published by I. B. Tauris on 31 August.

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