Brexit: Half In, Half Out or Right Out?

6 March 2018
Andrew Duff (Visiting Fellow at the European Policy Centre and President of the Spinelli Group; former MEP)

Following the presentation of the draft secession treaty by the Commission on 28 February and the interventions of four former, wannabe or acting UK Prime Ministers, Andrew Duff discusses the prospects of the future relationship between the European Union and the UK.

1. Corbyn’s conversion: The most that can be said about Mr Corbyn is that he is at least ambitious for Brexit. Though he announced his conversion to continued UK membership of the customs union; unlike Turkey, he also wants the UK’s own trade policy to play a part (unspecified) in the EU’s commercial policy.

2. The ex’s presumptions: The stance of John Major and Tony Blair is predicated on two bold and unfounded presumptions: first, that the EU would be happy to have the British back as full members without imposing tough political conditions; and second, that the British electorate would change its mind about Brexit if offered the chance to do so in a second referendum.

3. Secession treaty: Duff welcomes the technical clarity of the draft withdrawal agreement. He emphasises the importance of the proposed Joint Committee. But he advises the UK to work for an EU regulation to safeguard free movement for British ex-pats across the Union.

4. Transition period: Duff finds the Commission’s proposed timetable for the transition period wholly unrealistic. He says it is vital that there is a provision for the extension of the transition period, including a specified decision-making procedure for such an extension, with the aim of eliding the end of the transition with the entry into force of the final UK-EU treaty on the ‘deep and special partnership’.

5. Irish protocol: The provisional protocol reflects the joint commitment made by the UK and Ireland in December to achieving full regulatory alignment should the efforts to negotiate a final UK-EU treaty fail. The over-reaction in London suggests, first, that the UK has not properly digested the political commitment it made, and, second, that the UK has never realised the degree to which the 1998 Good Friday Agreement pooled sovereignty between Britain and Ireland with respect to the future of Northern Ireland.

6. Mansion House: With her speech on Brexit at Mansion House, Theresa May faced up to truths she had previously sought to avoid. She was clear that divergence from the European acquis will have adverse trade consequences for the UK. She effectively rebuffed the Brexiteers who claim that regulatory equivalence is neither desirable nor necessary in order to trade with the EU. She wants to maintain high regulatory standards - thereby sinking the Singapore option beloved of her gung-ho nationalists.

7. Ukraine example: Drawing explicitly on the Ukraine example, Mrs May observed that it was possible to align with the EU in some areas but not in others. She rebuffed Mr Barnier’s argument that Britain faces an invidious binary choice between Norway on the one hand and Canada on the other. Under its Association Agreement, Ukraine has different levels of market access depending on the degree of regulatory harmonisation, sector by sector.

8. Association agreements: Andrew Duff revisits his argument that the UK should seek a dynamic, comprehensive Association Agreement of its own with the EU, with free trade at its core, but also with deep political collaboration in the field of both internal and external security. Strong institutions, including a joint court, will be needed to govern the new arrangement. What Mrs May appears to want can only be packaged inside such an association agreement, and the European Council should indicate that at its meeting on 22-23 March in order to force the British to be more forthcoming about respect for the EU acquis.

9. Regulatory orbit: Duff agrees with Tony Blair and Theresa May that it is in Europe’s interest to hug Britain as close as possible. In its present unreformed state, the Union would not be insulated from damage wrought by a belligerent, nationalistic Britain sulking 40 kilometres off Calais. The EU’s immediate interest lies in keeping the British within its regulatory orbit. In the long term the mission of ‘ever closer union’ must embrace the British too.

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