Now it’s time to switch things up!
Originally published here
“… and that’s why we’ve put together these comprehensive plans for the order we think the further talks should proceed in, once the transition period has been extended…”
“We won’t be extending it.”
“I beg your pardon?!”
“We’ve been very clear about this from the outset. The messaging we put out six months ago wasn’t only meant for the press, Mr Barnier. The United Kingdom will not agree to extend the transition period. It wouldn’t even be legal for us to do that back home now.”
“But we simply cannot agree to the terms you have put forward on fisheries, or rules of origin… our industries could not compete!”
“Then, as you say, we cannot agree. I am sorry this didn’t work out between us. I suggest that we both go back to our countries and prepare to implement our No Deal planning by the end of the year. We’ll be around any time, just in case you change your mind.”
This time last year, that kind of conversation would have been unthinkable around the negotiating table in Brussels, but it is now a very real possibility. It is the second of two things that strike me in particular about last Friday’s historic General Election result, as it pertains to Brexit – but more on that later.
The first thing is that, while Brexiteers should in theory be overjoyed in that it now seems certain we will leave the EU at the end of January, in fact most of my acquaintance remain quietly confident, but are still taking nothing for granted. This will now be the fourth date they have been promised, after all – I think they will believe it at 11pm on Friday 31st January, and not before.
Conversely, it actually seems to be the Remain camp that has now accepted Brexit as an inevitability. The People’s Vote campaign group, in particular, has effectively shut up shop, announcing that it will now reform itself into a group that campaigns for a “fair deal” for Britain in the subsequent negotiations on the future relationship. It is as though, for them, 13th December was the real watershed moment, whereas for Brexiteers, this will still be 31st January.
Secondly, though – and to come back to the hypothetical conversation that I opened with – it should be noted that the 2017 General Election, leading to a hung Parliament, was held scant days before the negotiations with the EU were due to commence. This means that, when Britain sends its negotiating team to parlay with the EU in early February, it will in fact be the very first time they have sat down in a room with Michel Barnier in the firm and comfortable knowledge that the Government for which they are an envoy has a strong and – dare one say it! – stable backing in the UK Parliament.
This is a total game-changer, and both sides will know it. The EU can be assured that, whatever the UK negotiating team brings back, as long as it is broadly in line with the negotiating mandate issued by the Prime Minister and his senior advisers, it will pass through Parliament unscathed. The UK, on the other hand, can be emboldened by its newfound strength of hand. Ian Hislop quipped satirically on Have I Got News For You back in 2017 that, were Mrs May to say to the EU: “my Government wants this…”, the EU might well reply: “you don’t have a Government!” – and in fairness, the satire was probably not too far from the truth there.
The reality going forward will now be very different – Westminster has been electrified! The Prime Minister has already announced that he will not extend the transition period beyond the end of next year, leaving both sides with a mere 11 months to negotiate a future partnership that satisfies all concerned. The transition period can only be extended by mutual agreement, and the decision must be made before 1st July. Michel Barnier has since indicated that his strong preference is to extend it significantly – but this time round, it could well be the UK that imposes a ticking clock on the EU, from a position of strength.
In short, all the key ingredients must be in place in order for this strategy to succeed. For such a tall order to be workable, it would be prudent at this point to also announce the further ramping up of No Deal preparations. If the Prime Minister does indeed wish to avoid further “dither and delay”, then this should be among the first actions that he uses his new mandate to take.
Let’s switch it up!