BY JAMIE FOSTER
Theresa May’s speech in Florence set out her government’s approach to Brexit in some detail. The message appears to be that the can is to be kicked down the road. A transitional arrangement that will last for an undetermined amount of time, believed to be two years, will see the UK remain in the single market, continue to pay into the EU budget and free movement remain in force throughout. Brexiteers are up in arms, viewing the speech as a betrayal of Brexit.
The logic behind the transitional period is the hope of avoiding a cliff edge where the UK comes out of the EU suddenly. It is hard to see how the transitional period can achieve this, however, as the cliff edge remains at the end of the transitional period. This would appear to be delaying the inevitable rather than avoiding it. Mrs May’s concession that the UK will pay a bill as the price of Brexit seems to be unmatched by any concessions from the EU. The chief concern of Brexiteers is threefold. Firstly, there is disquiet that free movement is allowed to continue past the point that the UK was due to leave the EU. Secondly, there is no clarity as to whether the European Court of Justice will continue to be the final arbitrator of disputes. Thirdly, having conceded that a bill will have to be paid, there is no guarantee that the EU accepts the bill should be at the level Mrs May believes it to be at.
Mrs May has ruled out a Norway model of remaining in the EEA, while at the same time rejecting the idea of a Canadian style free trade agreement. She hopes for a bespoke model for the UK which the EU shows no sign of agreeing to. While it makes complete sense for the UK to have a bespoke arrangement designed to further the interests of both the UK and the EU, political will in Europe seems to be against any such arrangement. The concern appears to be that, if a deal is made too attractive it will have the effect of encouraging others to leave the EU.
In many ways, the negotiations highlight the fundamental problem that the EU faces. It is not an organisation that can allow itself to be ruled by pragmatism. The principle of free movement takes precedence over a pragmatic approach to the movement of people, and at the same time a sensible deal cannot be reached due to the political consideration of the effect on other members. This is an extraordinary situation where the EU cannot act in the best interests of its members because of its own interests. In many ways, it shows why we cannot remain in such an organisation, clearly no longer fit for purpose.
Unfortunately, Mrs May’s speech shows that she is not able to grasp the nettle of Brexit. The fear of leaving has led to a long, drawn out divorce that appears to have no logical end in sight. It is unsurprising that Brexiteers feel they are being cheated by an approach that leaves us inside the EU with no definite leaving point in sight. From a EU point of view there is no downside to this proposal. It would be open to them to reject it and keep the UK on course towards a cliff edge. This may act as a warning to any member thinking of following the UK’s example. Alternatively, it could accept the open ended transitional period as it would show that it is essentially impossible to leave the EU.
Mrs May’s bespoke solution is likely to worry Brexiteers as much as her speech. If free movement is to continue, Britain continues to pay into the EU budget and the ECJ retains primacy it is hard to see how the UK can be said to have left the EU at all. The fear that a Remainer PM would seek to water down Brexit seems to be justified by the speech. There is a curious situation caused by Mrs May’s approach to free movement. She has proposed that it should remain in place but at the same time new arrivals should be registered. This would seem to have the effect of creating two classes of EU migrants. Those who arrived pre-referendum, whose rights would appear to be guaranteed, and those who arrive during the transitional phase, whose rights remain in question. Like everything else about the speech this provides no clear definitive answer to the problem it addresses. One must wonder whether Theresa May is the right person to be leading the Brexit negotiations. This speech has done little to answer that question.
Jamie Foster is a Country Solicitor, Chief Writer & Co-Founder of Country Squire Magazine.