Brexit after UK election (II): Mapping unintended consequences

Talks between the UK and EU begin next week, but we know nothing more about the British position than we did when Theresa May triggered Article 50 two and a half months ago. Despite her rhetoric, Brexit did not figure substantially in the election campaign. As former MEP Andrew Duff points out in a discussion paper for the European Policy Centre, Labour and the Tories both campaigned for the completion of Brexit and the smaller parties which sought different outcomes lost votes.

Yet there is no cross-party consensus on what to look for in the talks and there is  a complete lack of interest on all sides in the EU positions. “Such a transparent cross-party approach would have the advantage of obliging rather more British politicians to read and digest the EU’s Brexit guidelines and directives”, writes Duff. “When they do so, they will discover why the European Union will not permit cake-eating and cherry-picking. ….When they look at Westminster today, the EU 27 see not only a government in chaos but also a shambles in the opposition… There has been no consistency or clarity or even an assured grasp of the facts among Labour’s many spokesmen.”

The big immediate issue will be to agree ‘sequencing’ – the order in which issues will be dealt with. The EU27 position is that progress must be made on the divorce bill, citizens’ rights and the Irish border before talks can begin on the future EU-UK relationship. The catch-22 is that it will be difficult to make progress on the first three issues unless everyone has at least a rough idea where the ultimate relationship is likely to land.

Duff reckons staying in the single market, for example via EEA membership, is now completely impossible – the EU could only permit it on conditions that would spell political doom, not just for May but for anyone of any party who tried to implement them.

“The better choice for Britain would be to apply to stay a member of the EU customs union until such time as a new and deeper relationship can be negotiated. This requires a U-turn by the prime minister, but she can be assured that an announcement of her intention to adhere to the common commercial policy of the EU would be met with immediate relief by the other heads of government. The Germans would be able to continue to sell their cars to Britain, and the French their wine and cheese. For Ireland, which exports 80% of its products either to the UK or in transit through the UK, the maintenance of customs union would be a huge relief. The DUP – along with everyone else on the island of Ireland – would be satisfied that the Northern Ireland border with the Republic could remain soft. Staying in the customs union for substantially all goods, including agriculture, would be the least disruptive of Britain’s current commercial arrangements, and would avoid having to embark on lengthy tortuous negotiations under the auspices of the WTO. Customs controls for goods would continue at Britain’s borders much as now.”