Sunday, 8 January 2017

Brexit: Planning for Plan B

There is a political meme kicking around at the moment that "we should be prepared to walk away from the table". It could have been an utterance of Mrs May or one of her underlings. Various MPs think it a wise precaution to prepare for the worst.

What one should note is that if we are are prepared to walk away from the table then the default is the WTO option where we fall out of the EU without an agreement. That should be avoided at all costs. The implications are huge. If politicians believe talks are likely to come to a stalling point then their plan should be to secure an extension to the talks as soon as possible in anticipation of them taking longer than the two years. Our plan A should be to make bloody well certain that we never have to fall back on a plan B.

We would only walk away from the table in such an instance where we were negotiating a trade deal where failure does not alter the status quo. In this instance failure radically changes our standing in Europe and the world. The mentality that suggests we can walk away from the table is one that has yet to comprehend Brexit.

Article 50 talks are not a matter of negotiating a trade deal. We are negotiating an administrative de-merger and a framework for continued cooperation with the EU on over three hundred areas of regulatory and technical cooperation. There is no WTO baseline. We would be looking at a cliff edge requiring a number of emergency measures which could very easily be sabotaged by member states looking to capitalise on the confusion. We would have no formal means of discourse with the EU and all of our enhanced rights would vanish.

During the referendum the remain camp pointed out what a catastrophe the WTO option would be. We took the view at LeavHQ that it would be even worse than even the remainers think - and we are no johnny come latelys to the Brexit cause.

I take the view that if we are planning for plan B then Plan A sucks. And indeed it probably does. Mrs May has yet to give any indication what her true intentions are but the rumour mill does not inspire me with confidence. It strikes me is that May is looking for a consequence free Brexit that ticks all of the boxes. This is madness. Even as an ardent pro-Brexit voice I am reconciled to the fact that Brexit has consequences and we will lose some of our present advantages. Compromise is necessary and there is no Brexit that satisfies everyone.

The search for the holy Brexit where we have full market participation and complete border control is a non starter. If we want concessions on freedom of movement then it is the job of the government to decide what penalty we are prepared to take. It is for Mrs May to decide which is the most politically palatable. What is not politically palatable is walking away with nothing with a considerably worse relationship with the EU and nothing in the offing as a consolation prize.

Walking away from the table is not an option. There are no other sellers in the market. A failure to obtain a deal plunges us into a decade of chaos where at best, as a favour, the EU may allow us to stand by the photocopier and replicate the various Swiss agreements. What we then end up with is a long uphill struggle to obtain what we could have had in the beginning by simply accepting the compromises of the EEA.

As has been noted the UK lacks the necessary expertise to negotiate multilateral deals and so our approach to negotiations should be to avoid as many technical negotiations as possible. Opening it all up for discussion gives member states ample opportunities to stick flies in the ointment and asset strip the UK. The EEA as a standing agreement avoids these risks. We should wherever possible take off the shelf solutions to safeguard against a cliff edge and to ensure the Brexit process cannot be interrupted to the nth degree.

Perversely the insistence on a clean Brexit with no transition means negotiating it all at once leading to several crunch points where we remain in the EU for years as the minutia is pored over by technocrats. The EEA buys us the time to negotiate annexes to the agreement as and when we are ready. It allows us to play it safe and if we then find that the EU will not make concessions then exit from the EEA can be achieved in a year. Single market membership gives us the time and space to act in our own time rather than bodging the job in one go. It is better to have choices than to be faced with an all or nothing ultimatum.

I would like to see a swift and clean Brexit as much as any Brexiteer but the realities are such that we cannot take reckless gambles nor can we put our faith in the empty mantras of Brexit free traders. The single market is a sophisticated system developed over decades and much of the EU was designed to be irreversible. We would be fools to attempt a rapid exit without a comprehensive understanding of the task at hand and more so to take on new competences we are not yet equipped to take on board.

It should also be noted that as much as our own government is at sixes and sevens there is every reason to believe member states will have an equally twisted idea of what can be achieved and how. It has the potential to swallow up all of the EUs runtime and resources. Britain will gain a good deal of favour if we come to the table with solutions rather than demands. If we come to the table with an array of answers to hard questions which forgo the need for messy bickering then the EU will assist us. If we are confrontational and bring problems to the table the we can expect ill will.

In the end our concern should be for a safe and orderly exit with a view to maintaining a strong relationship with our neighbours. If we are anticipating failure then Mrs May needs to rethink her strategy. Accidental Brexit is not an option. If that is what May delivers then she will go down as the most incompetent prime minister of all time. Given the competition, that really is saying something. 

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