Why Brussels is Giggling – A Short Guide to Brexit.
Brexit is Brexit, and Brexit means the withdrawal of the UK from membership of the EU via the process outlined in Article 50.
That process means, once Article 50  has been triggered, “the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal…It shall be concluded on behalf of the Union by the Council, acting by a qualified majority, after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament“.
That is conditional on two things:
First, the agreement must stick to the guidelines provided by the European Council (EC – the heads of all the EU states) .
Second, it must adhere to the procedures for negotiating with ‘third countries’.
Simple enough. But notice that the EU only needs a qualified majority to conclude the agreement. While the UK is still a member of the EU, it only has one vote – no more than any other member – and no veto.
If the UK doesn’t like the agreement, there’s not much it can do. It might, conceivably, continue negotiating, but only for up to two years. After that, talks might be extended, but only with unanimous agreement of the EC.
In the UK, the current position of both Conservative and Labour parties is that they wish to restrict Freedom of Movement. That, according to the EC guidelines, will not be possible if the UK is to remain part of the Single Market and customs union (i.e. our ability to send and receive goods to and from the EU without additional paperwork, taxes, duties, inspections etc.). So the UK will need to leave not just the EU, but also the Single Market and the Customs Union. That can be done all at once, and tariffs and customs and trade deals sorted out afterwards. The UK then might try to join EFTA (the European Free Trade Agreement) and the EEA (European Economic Area), but those usually imply Freedom of Movement, so a special agreement would need to be hammered out, and that may not be possible if either or both stick to their founding principles.
There might also be a price to pay for leaving the EU. The UK, quite reasonably, will be expected to pay for projects it signed up to before it told the EU it was leaving. But that price will be negotiable (current estimates range between £15bn and £100bn), and it’s probable the UK will get a reasonable deal on that, even if it’s not exactly what the main political parties, or the Leave campaign, promised. The EU will have to be seen to be fair, after all. However, even at the top end of the range, that part of the deal will soon look like the cheap and easy bit.
That’s because, alongside and tied up with the Single Market are a whole bunch of useful things. One of these is the European Medicines Agency , currently housed in London, that regulates medicines across the EU. It employs around 600 people, and the UK will have to pay to have the whole thing moved to Europe, because it’s the UK’s fault it’s having to move. The UK will then either have to pay to set up a new regulatory agency for medicines of its own, or pay a fee to remain a member of the agency it has just paid to shift. Whichever it is, it’s difficult to see either of those options going down well politically.
The EMA is only one of 44 agencies . Another is EURATOM, which regulates nuclear materials. The UK is definitely leaving that . but will surely need an alternative – a regulator of it’s own. And that alternative will need to be acceptable to the EU, as most nuclear material (the radioisotopes using in medicine, for example) used in Britain comes from France. The only alternative would be for the UK to produce its own radioisotopes, but that would involve setting up an industry, from scratch, hoping patients didn’t mind waiting while it was done.
Some of the remaining agencies are well-known, such as Europol, and already share data with non-EU countries, so it’s possible the UK could stay a member of those, provided the ECJ wasn’t too involved and the EU didn’t mind. Other agencies are not so visible, but are just as vital. In addition, there are markets within the Single Market. The EU’s Internal Energy Market (IEM), for example, which currently allows access to its grids and pipelines so the UK can import 38% of its gas through EU pipes, buy and sell electricity through the undersea ‘interconnector’ cables, offset fluctuations in wind and solar and provide back-up when power stations go offline . Out of the IEM, the UK will have to upgrade its grid and capacity quickly and significantly, and solve some tricky geopolitical issues. One is the status of the offshore wind-farms owned and operated by Danish companies. Another is how to disconnect and reconnect the Republic of Ireland to the EU’s IEM. That mightn’t seem like a UK problem but, again, as it’s the UK’s fault that the UK is leaving, the UK will be expected to pay for any damage the process causes to other countries.
Which brings to mind fisheries . According to some, the UK will be able to exercise rights to 200 miles of water around its coast. But that only works where there’s 200 miles to play with and, in most directions, there isn’t. In those cases, we have to split the difference between France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Iceland. And the Republic of Ireland. That might leave the UK with 800,000 square miles of exclusive water but, thanks to UN agreements, the UK wouldn’t only fish (or sell fishing licences) for that water. As a signatory to UN agreements on fishing stocks, it will have to patrol and police all that water, and cooperate with the EU to manage the fish stocks. At present, the UK has three boats and a helicopter that could be used for that task. More will obviously be needed.
Land borders will also be an issue. The Republic of Ireland, as an EU member, will remain in the Single Market. The UK will not. So how will new trade rules (whatever they are) be imposed without a ‘hard’ border between the North and South of Ireland? How, for that matter, with a ‘hard’ border be built between the UK and EU at all? To cope with the additional paperwork and inspections and immigration controls, will the UK need to rebuild or reconfigure all its ports and airports? Can that be done in under 2 years? And how will it be done? At the moment, the UK doesn’t even count its own citizens in and out, let alone immigrants, whether legal or illegal, which is why no UK minister can give anything but a guess as to the number of them.
Despite all these challenges, Brexit is legally possible, at least from the EU’s point of view. It may not even be quite as bad as it looks for the UK, as it may be able to retain membership of some EU agencies and institutions that are open to non-members of the Single Market. That said, such institutions will be governed by the European Court of Justice and both main UK parties have promised to withdraw from under the influence of that.
Even it if is legally possible, it may not be practically possible, especially as it’s not yet clear what will be needed and there’s less than two years to get it done and no budget to do it with.
After that, the next big headache is trade. Initially, we could rely on World Trade Organisation rules, but those can be expensive in more ways than one. On many things, tariffs look cheap, and many think it great that the UK might get cheaper pineapples. But it would also get cheaper steel, cars and services – all from low-wage economies which can simply dump their products on the UK market. It’s very probable that those most in favour of Brexit, who believe the EU has driven down their business, will be the first to be affected by a flood of hyper-competition.
For the moment, there’s nothing that can be done about that. And it’s not all unplanned uncertainty. The Great Repeal Bill , for example, is scheduled to crawl through Parliament soon. The Bill is designed to swiftly import all the existing EU law into British law, after which the UK to change it. That’s the idea, anyhow. But if the relevant EU authorities haven’t yet been replaced by UK ones, it’s difficult to see the process being quick, as so much will need to be immediately rewritten. And, in the meantime, what? How can a farmer plan, as they have to, a year ahead without knowing even if there’ll be an agricultural policy, let alone a system to administer it, in a year’s time, what crops, pesticides etc will be allowed and where they’ll recruit seasonal labour from? How can any business plan without knowing what the legal basis for tendering, employment, competition and compliance will be, let alone what markets will exist, and under what conditions?
In short, it’s all an unknowable mess, and very probably impossible. There’s a vast amount of detailed, complex and expensive work to be done, none of which has even been acknowledged or planned for by the UK government, or approved by Parliament, all to be completed within two years, followed by perhaps a decade of negotiating trade deals, replacing ‘transitional’ arrangements with real alternatives, finding new sources for food and fuel, new markets for our exports, and working out how to operate inside rapidly-shifting legal constraints that each new trade deal will impose. ‘Taking back control’ will be, at best, temporary and astonishingly expensive.
Even if we do just walk away, as Theresa May has suggested , that would only save a little time. The EU can decide on a deal whether the UK agrees or not and, if we don’t play ball, can pursue us through the WTO and international courts, which might seriously delay or compromise our ability to do any trade or deals with other nations. Given that, it’s no surprise that recent political events, and the denialist stance of British politicians, have been met with laughter in Brussels.
1. Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty (2007)
2. European Council (Art. 50) guidelines for Brexit negotiations (2017)
3. House of Commons Library: Future of the European Medicines Agency (2017)
4. House of Commons Library: EU Agencies and Post-Brexit Options
5. House of Lords Library: Leaving the European Union: Euratom
6. House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee: Leaving the EU: negotiation priorities for energy and climate change policy inquiry
7. House of Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee: Brexit: Fisheries Inquiry
8. House of Commons Library: Legislating for Brexit: the Great Repeal Bill
9. House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee: Article 50 negotiations: Implications of ‘No Deal’