It is one of the ironies of history that the EU as it is today, starting with the single market, was largely made in Britain, the achievement, above all, of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher and her right-hand man in Brussels, the then Commissioner (Lord) Arthur Cockfield. The single market has long been viewed by observers in countries with less of a free market tradition as a typically British liberal invention. And yet it is this market, as well as the EU itself, that another Conservative government is now seeking to leave.
Britain has also left its stamp on key EU initiatives from regional policy to development assistance and fisheries. The EU’s interest in a common foreign and security policy originally stemmed from Britain. The EU’s comparatively transparent and accountable administrative rules date from the reforms introduced by former British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock when he was Vice-President of the European Commission from 1999 to 2004. Thus, representatives of Britain’s two major parties have helped to make the EU what it is today.
If British prime ministers had explained to public opinion earlier the extent of their country’s influence on the EU, something that other Europeans never doubted, the referendum of 23 June 2016 might never have occurred.
A “Smooth and Sensible” Brexit
Be that as it may, Europeans on both sides of the English Channel are now grappling with the consequences of that vote. If reason and economic interest prevail, a “smooth and sensible” Brexit, as evoked by the British prime minister in Florence in September, might yet emerge.
This would involve a broad agreement, in 2017, on the principal aspects of the divorce settlement. This concerns mainly Britain’s financial commitments to the EU, the residence, professional and health rights of citizens living on both sides of the Channel after Brexit, and the need to maintain the Common Travel Area between Britain and Ireland and to avoid a hard border across the island of Ireland after Brexit. While Brussels, London and Dublin have affirmed their intention of achieving these goals, there are many practical and political issues to resolve.
If sufficient confidence and trust between EU and UK negotiators is established, it should also be possible to agree to the general terms of a future political and economic agreement between London and Brussels by the end of the year and to broach the question of transitional arrangements to smooth the way for government and business. The British government wishes to ensure that business need adjust to Brexit only once, hence the need for a smooth transition to a well-defined future relationship.
If good progress is made next year, the separation agreement and transitional arrangements could be drawn up by October 2018, allowing enough time for approval by EU and British institutions ahead of Britain’s exit from the EU at midnight between 29 and 30 October 2019. Little, except Britain’s lost vote in EU institutions, would then change for the next two to three years, as the UK continued to make payments to the EU budget, respect judgements of the European Court of Justice and accept the free movement of labour.
The breathing space would be used to negotiate, sign and ratify a two-part long-term agreement. The first part would cover trade and economic issues; it could take effect provisionally relatively quickly after agreement had been reached. The second part, though, would be a wide-ranging political agreement, involving security and even aspects of defence. Both sides have an interest in cooperation on armaments production and unconventional forms of conflict, as well as police and judicial affairs. This would involve the member states’ legal responsibilities and require ratification by all twenty-eight countries concerned. It might not come into effect before the mid-late 2020s.
This relatively benign sequence of events assumes that the British government is unified behind its negotiator, David Davies, and that the political situation in Britain and the EU remains generally stable. It also assumes that the EU can move beyond its rigid two-stage sequencing of the negotiations.