19th Mar 2018

Column / Brexit Briefing

Phoney war, phoney expectations

  • Theresa May's woes are only just beginning, with major headaches in store from the parliament's Brexit committee. (Photo: UK Parliament/flickr)

The House of Commons’ new Exiting the European Union Committee held its first hearing on Wednesday (16 November) in a nearly deserted room in Westminster.

The lack of interest was a slight surprise. Granted, most parliamentary committees are toothless talking shops, and their meetings punishingly boring.

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But the 21-member Brexit Committee should be different - its members are big-hitters - including Michael Gove and Dominic Raab, two leading Leave campaigners during the June referendum - and it is chaired by Labour’s Hilary Benn, a former cabinet minister in the Blair and Brown governments.

It also is 12-9 in favour of Remain, making it well-placed to embarrass the government.

Yet for the moment, there are another four months of the Brexit phoney war until Article 50 is triggered, and a hearing with a think-tank wonk, a former senior civil servant and a Cambridge University don is hardly going to get pulses racing.

The trouble with drift is that it allows perceptions and unrealistic expectations to harden.

Despite consistent warnings to the contrary from European leaders - the latest this week from Germany’s Wolfgang Schaeuble and the Netherlands’ Jeroen Dijsselbloem - most voters still think that Britain can have its cake and eat it too.

A survey by NatCen Research this week suggested that 90 percent of Britons want the country to continue to trade freely in goods and services with its European neighbours after quitting the EU.

However 70 percent think the UK should be able to limit the number of EU citizens coming to live and work in the country - which EU leaders say is incompatible with single market access or free trade.

Forced to choose between the two, 49 percent would support keeping freedom of movement if it allows the UK to keep free trade, 51 percent opposing it. In other words, a repeat of the June referendum.

Into the storm of Brexit

Squaring this circle will require a herculean feat of diplomacy.

In numbers and planning, the UK is not in a strong position.

A leaked memo by auditors Deloitte this week suggested that the government will have to hire up to 30,000 new civil servants to shoulder the extra work.

The Deloitte paper was widely rubbished inside and outside the government but there is still a consensus that Whitehall is chronically understaffed.

The government’s new Brexit department, headed by David Davis, will have a staff of around 400 people - tiny for any government department, let alone one tasked with one of the UK’s biggest single policy changes in a generation.

The human resources and planning deficit explains, in part, why the May government has not produced a coherent Brexit plan and may even fail to meet its self-imposed deadline of March 31st to trigger Article 50.

“Not enough progress has been made – more needs to happen and time is relatively short if we are to have a negotiating position in three months’ time,” former foreign office chief Sir Simon Fraser, told the committee.

He added that meeting the March deadline for its own sake might actually weaken the UK’s position if it compromises the scope and depth of the proposal.

Wishful thinking

So far, so sensible, you might think - the basic principles of diplomacy and negotiation. There is, however, a gaping hole between the expectations of the ‘experts’ and ministers.

Foreign minister Boris Johnson airily commented that “we probably will have to come out of the customs union, but that’s a question I am sure will be discussed.”

Meanwhile, Gove, Johnson’s partner in crime turned post-referendum assassin, insisted that the UK could strike a “quickie divorce” with Brussels.

This, the three witnesses told MPs, is probably unobtainable. Unless the UK moves to a trading relationship with the EU based on World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, an interim deal (many interim deals) will be needed.

A definitive future agreement, meanwhile, is likely to be concluded as a ‘mixed agreement’ which – like the EU’s trade talks with Canada (Ceta) and the US (TTIP) - would require the approval of 34 national and sub-national parliaments.

Given that TTIP is probably dead and Ceta barely survived the opposition of Wallonia, a transitional agreement between the UK and EU seems inevitable.

By giving the impression that Brexit will be straightforward, when most political insiders think it will long, awkward and messy, Theresa May and her ministers are making her administration a huge hostage to fortune.

Next spring the phoney war will be replaced by the reality of negotiations, my guess is so too with the phoney expectations.

Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a consultant with Sovereign Strategy, a London-based PR firm, and a freelance writer

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