The “Invoke Article 50 now” movement is deeply misguided and those leading the charge really need to have a rethink and get a stronger grasp of the issues. On the day Theresa May became Prime Minister protestors gathered at the Downing Street gates to demand the process be instigated immediately; this is most likely a direct response to the anti-Brexit protests and demands to ignore the vote. Although I understand that there is a developing anxiety that the Government will back track, we cannot make any rash decisions just to reassure anxious Brexiteers.
We are seeing the symptoms of a deeply entrenched naivety about what leaving the EU entails. We’re not rescinding our membership of a golf club; we are leaving a political and judicial union that touches upon ever area of British governance. Our economies are deeply integrated as part of a common regulatory area free of technical barriers to trade (which are far more important than tariffs) and we must figure out what our future economic relationship will be and what can be realistically achieved in the first instance.
There is far too much flippancy about the importance of the Single Market to our economy and little understanding that it cannot easily be replicated. A comprehensive trade agreement designed to form a new trading partnership from outside of the Single Market is achievable in the long run, but it will take years and contrary to the myth we cannot just fall back on WTO rules alone in the meantime without severely negative consequences.
Giving notification to the EU that we intend to leave via Article 50 triggers a two-year period in which we will negotiate a settlement for our secession. This initial settlement is critical, it is of huge importance that we get this right and secure our economy because botching this stage of the process could potentially be catastrophic. The first stage of what will be a continually evolving relationship needs to provide trade and business continuity.
Crucially, our Article 50 negotiations are about far more than trade and this is what makes the process inherently complicated and makes an interim solution for trade likely. We are deeply integrated in the Union; there is not a single element of policymaking that is not affected to some extent by EU law. This should tell you something of the difficulties ahead.
We also have a multitude of contractual obligations and are involved in a wide variety of cooperation programmes. We closely cooperate with the EU on defence, security, justice and home affairs, science and academia, aviation and space activities. Every area will need looking at and this will take a huge amount of time and political capital. In this, there will be trade-off and concessions and in some cases we will look to maintain things as they are or defer until later because we only have so much capacity for dealing with all of these issues.
It is abundantly clear that the Government is not remotely prepared for the huge task at hand; officials were prevented from making concrete preparations for Brexit and thus they haven’t done any work on what it will involve. It is clear that the inherent complexities, difficulties and potential pitfalls of this project have not really sunk in and Cabinet Ministers heading up Brexit will need long, detailed sessions with their advisers and legal team before they begin to get to grips with it.
It is a good, positive step to have set up two new government departments to begin work but as yet they have no resources whatsoever. The Government does not, as it stands, have the ability to begin Article 50 negotiations; they don’t have the staff, the expertise or a plan. So demanding the invocation of Article 50 immediately is little more than a childish sulk. Those calling for this may as well stamp their feet, fold their arms and keep quiet if they cannot contribute constructively or try to understand what we are taking on and why it isn’t half as simple as they think or hope.
We don’t currently have an official negotiation position on trade nor any other issue. We don’t have a negotiating team either. The government has not decided between them what our aims are, nor have we settled the best way forward to unify all nations of the United Kingdom. Even when we do clarify some of our aims, we are unsure of the room for manoeuvre we have with other European governments. We haven’t prepared the ground, properly analysed the situation or sounded out other Member States. Thus, we are in no way ready to invoke Article 50. Not by a long shot. And we cannot contemplate doing so until we are good and ready because failure will lead either to severe economic downturn or to the government seeking to pull the plug on the whole process and stay in the EU. We cannot afford to fail, so we must prepare ourselves thoroughly and proceed only when we are good and ready.
First of all we must conduct a scoping exercise. This means preliminary discussions and informal negotiations with other European leaders. We state our position to each Member State and find out their position in response. In doing this we can discover what is open for negotiation and what is not and begin building an agenda. We cannot do this until we are clear on what our objectives are and what compromises we are willing to make and what our “red lines” are.
For this will require many hearings of select committees, expert panels, public consultations and referrals to professional bodies, unions, trade guilds and input from academics. The experts here are most certainly not our Ministers; people like Davis and Johnson might be our figureheads, but they haven’t got a grasp of the details and the technicalities. Over the coming months the hard reality will begin to sink in and the absolute necessity for compromise, transitional solutions and concessions become very clear. This will likely lead to a recalibration of our aims.
Scoping will take six months or more and we have the looming French and German elections which could cause a change in position. It would clearly be reckless to rush this process or make any rash decisions. We really must accept that Brexit is a long process; it is going to take some time to initiate and will be very much ongoing for many years ahead of us. Even after our membership officially ends our legal and constitutional disentanglement will take a very long time indeed.
There have been concerns raised that Article 50 will never be triggered, this is aggravated by Remain supporters and politicians who are very much hoping for and actively seeking this outcome. There is indeed a danger, especially as our politicians really begin to gain an understanding of the sheer magnitude of the task. It may lead to delays. We must therefore be vigilant, politically engaged and ready to object if necessary. However, for our part we must also understand that this is not a small undertaking, there are no shortcuts, no easy ways out. This is not simple, no matter how much we’d like it to be. I’m not over complicating it, as I am so often accused of doing, it is complicated and that’s all there is to it.
There is a minefield ahead of us which we must navigate our way through. This means slowly, carefully, in a measured and planned way; one step at a time. Paranoid demands to “invoke Article 50 now!” are not a helpful contribution to the debate; it simply makes Leavers look clueless, and we don’t exactly have a great reputation for knowing our brief as it is. If Remainers have a duty to accept the referendum result and make a positive construction to the debate, then Leavers have a responsibility to stop oversimplifying this, get to grips with the enormity of it and get involved in the detail, the boring technicalities and grown up politics of Brexit.
After two years of Article 50 negotiations we will officially no longer be members of the EU but it is certain that large parts of our current relationship will have been retained as they are. What we will have developed is a roadmap for our gradual divergence over time. As some political and legal obligations we wish to be free of wind down, and we seek a fully customised trade arrangement, and we begin to review the statute books, our relationship will evolve, we will become increasingly more independent and we will have our so called “British model”; but we’re looking at a 20-year process.
Our main broad aims in the initial exit settlement should be to protect our economy and minimise disruption, which should come down to retaining our trade relationship via the Single Market thus deferring any bespoke trading agreement, and seeking concessions on immigration allowing for better management of the incoming numbers. This stage is all about transition management. It means protecting jobs and encouraging investment, conserving our own Union of nations and giving ourselves a soft landing.
From there we can slowly but surely build the “global Britain” we aspire to, re-engage with the world as an independent nation, develop trade links and restore independent policy making. But this will take time and it will require our patience.
Right now, the timing of when we invoke Article 50 is fully within our control and remains a strong hand in our deck until such a time as we play it. Rash decisions and rushing for the sake of it will lead to a bad outcome. If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.
The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty