Saturday, 10 September 2016

Brexit need not be complex

A theme emerging on Twitter that we will see develop over the week is that "Brexit has failed". We have a government that cannot reconcile the many paradoxes between what was promised and what is likely. This is, of course, the usual catastrophising histrionics of remainers. And it's not going to work.

No-one can deny that the task of Brexit is large and multifaceted, and on the face of it seemingly irreconcilable. But that's only really if you attempt to get all of what you want all at once. Negotiations, though, are a lot like knife fights. The best way to survive one is not to have one. And that is very much in our power.

Article 50 negotiations give us two years. It took eight years to negotiate the EEA agreement. It seems implausible that we can redesign our relationship with the EU in those two years. So the obvious answer is not to even try.

If Britain wants to pick and mix and create a bespoke Brexit then we're in for a long drag where one negotiation has implications for the next and the next can undo the first. We could very easily go round in circles for a long time and get nowhere. So we have to look at the fallout that we want to avoid in order of priority.

First and foremost the UK does not want a decade of long drawn out talks. The uncertainty would lead to stagnation if not recession and it wouldn't do the EU any favours either. The EU has only limited diplomatic and technical resources and would rather be addressing its core programmes than diverting all of it for the purposes of Brexit. That actually gives us some leverage. If we go to the EU with solutions rather than problems then thy will be well received.

The last thing the EU wants is yet another tangled web of separate agreements to try and circumnavigate especially when it already has an interface for semi-detatched neighbours. It will not be a in a hurry to design new ones. By committing to use the frameworks that already exist without opening them up for debate we take a whole tranche of complications out of the picture completely. That then only leaves the peripheral agreements where we are either negotiating our exit contracts or negotiating our continued particpation.

The biggest matter of single market particpation is dealt with by way of joining the EEA. That then makes space for the more difficult talks around fishing, agriculture and WTO subsidy quotas. In this there will be complications but nothing insurmountable. Having closed down much of our capacity for domestic governance we will need to negotiate a phased handover timetable with a number of error traps and fallback positions. That's more a matter of project management than negotiation.

So long as the aim is to reduce to complexity, keep it short and keep as much the same as it was then there is an incentive for the EU to help the process rather than create obstance. Minimal disruption for both sides is a huge selling point.

By the end of this process we then have an agreement where the UK is a free agent to diversify at its own pace. Having joined the EEA we will have a system designed to hold periodic reviews and continuous development. That means we leave the EU one policy at a time as an when we have decided what exemptions we which and which mechanisms we will use to achieve. It removes any cliff edge scenario.

Ideally we should join Efta to do this, using the existing framework to save duplication. If however Norway were to block such a move then we would seek to simply clone the EEA agreement and create annexes of our own. The advantage to doing it this way is that it makes Brexit an open ended process whereby we can go as quickly or as slowly as we have the capacity for. It offers the softest possible landing for the UK while also reducing the risks for the EU.

Only if we insist on going over every last detail in the Article 50 process will we risk endangering the process and that could have major ramifications for the global economy. The world's fifth largest economy pulling away from the world's most sophisticated political and economic entity has contagion risks. We can circumvent them entirely. Through the EEA safeguard measures we can engineer modifications to freedom of movement and register exceptions to EU legislation.

Nobody wins from a long and acrimonious split and the more we try to rush it there more likely that becomes. There is no galloping hurry to achive full departure. The public need reassurance that the process is underway and that there are no attempts to subvert the referendum but attempting to dismantle forty years of integration is not something we want to go at like a bull in a china shop.

Admittedly the EEA agreement is suboptimal and there may be resistance to larger concessions but the largely europhile Norwegian government won't be in power forever. By the time we come to wanting more progress on Brexit we can very easily enlist the support of Norway and other Efta members - and that is more than enough leverage to get what we need.

It should not be forgotten that because the EU now adopts global standards and regulations we have more than just Efta states in support of any reforms to EU rules and having the right of initiative in international regulatory organisations means we can bypass and subvert the EU if needs be.

Brexit can be as complex as we want to make it. If we are too ambitious from the outset we will find few allies and make unforced errors, making decisions on the fly that should really be put to wider public consultation. Instead we can set upon a process, biding our time and take back control one issue at a time. The EU has nothing to gain by obstructing us. Attempts to frustrate the process may create problems for us but problems mean more time consuming negotiations and risks nobody wants. If we go about Brexit in a way that does the EU the least harm the we can rightly expect the same in kind.

We can expect some resistance to this approach from the home crowd but that is a case of simply managing the politics in a process that will ultimately require compromises from everyone. Nobody is going to be completely satisfied. The EEA agreement, though, gives us much of what we want and ultimately ends EU membership. There are other ways we can go about leaving but there are no advantages to reinventing the wheel. Entering the process with a view to keeping it simple might be the strongest leverage we have.

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