Richard North, 21/03/2017  
 


The one good thing about Mrs May finally letting it be known when she is to invoke Article 50 is that it puts to bed all those who advanced at great and tiresome lengths the view that we did not need the Article and could proceed immediately to the leaving stage by repealing the European Communities Act.

This goes back to July 2012 when Booker was calling for Mr Cameron to pursue Article 50, only to run into a storm of hostile commentary – not dissimilar to what he's currently getting.

Pitched into battle we saw the likes of Idris Francis and Ashley Mote lambasting Booker, calling Article 50 a "trap" and warning of dire consequences if it was ever invoked.

Some readers had the Eurogendarmerie storming the British Isles while Torquil Erikson told us that "any and every EU regulation and directive which has been passed into UK law would be nit-picked over and reinforced with threats of fines and prosecution".

"Any interim activity planned by the British government", he said, "would be examined microscopically for any apparent unlawful activity, and again policed with threats. It would be a logistical and administrative nightmare for the then UK government".

At the top of the dung heap was Gerard Batten, speaking for Ukip, then as now, arguing that Article 50 should not be used.

We can take some small comfort from the fact that these voices will no longer be heard, but there will be no apologies offers or admission of error. That never happens in eurosceptic land. Different voices take up different themes and the noise continues.

From the Prime Minister, however, rather than noise, we get clichés. "I am very clear", she says, "that I want to ensure we get the best possible deal for the United Kingdom that works for everyone across the United Kingdom and all parts of the UK when we enter these negotiation".

"I have set out my objectives", she declares: "These include getting a good free trade deal. They include putting issues like continuing working together on issues like security at the core of what we are doing. We are going to be out there, negotiating hard, delivering on what the British people voted for".

What we don't get is any sense of how she intends to achieve this, up against Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, who has a message for us. "Britain's example", he says, "will make everyone else realise that it's not worth leaving".

This has the tabloid media spitting with indignation at Juncker's "boast", but a more sanguine assessment might be that the President, unlike the Prime Minister, has weighed up the odds of the UK walking away with a successful deal, and has concluded that they are not favourable.

If we are to believe the odious Guido the "Ultras" themselves are not rating our chances very highly, while a "government source" puts the likelihood of the UK having to adopt the WTO option at 50-50.

If that is the case, the Government ministers have no-one to blame but themselves. It would take very little skill and even less research to cut through the rhetoric and acknowledge that concluding a "good free trade deal" inside the 18 months being set aside for the talks - on top of all the other issues that have to be settled – is extremely unlikely.

All one can do is watch the Government define its own nemesis as it lurches forward into an impossible position from which there is no escape.

Sadly, though, it appears we are going to be none the wiser in just over a week when the Prime Minister sends her Article 50 notification to Brussels. We are told to expect (contrary to the advice of Ivan Rogers) only a short letter, possibly extending to two pages at most, doing nothing more than reiterating the Government's general objectives.

If that is the case, it will be a mistake, handing the initiative to the "colleagues", who will then have no constraints in crafting their response. And if, as expected, the they couch it as a series of demands, leading with the presentation of a substantial claim for financial compensation, then we can pretty much assume that we're in for a rough ride.

Mrs May has seriously dropped the ball on this, having failed to manage public expectations in a battle she cannot win. Come what may, the UK is going to have to pay a substantial sum to the EU, and make ongoing financial commitments, if it is to stay in the game. Yet, she has allowed the assumption that she will be standing firm, setting herself up for a fall.

Some theorise that, in the expectation of failure, Mrs May is looking more to the process of blame deflection than she is a successful outcome to the negotiations, in which case an unwavering stance from the "colleagues" will play into her hands, allowing the "unreasonable" EU to be cast a the villain.

Juncker is already halfway there, according to (Bild am Sonntag via Reuters), having said that Juncker said Britain would need to get used to being treated as a non-member. "Half memberships and cherry-picking aren't possible", he says: "In Europe you eat what's on the table or you don't sit at the table".

That latter phrase is being taken as an indication that the EU will be immovable on the financial issue, in which case we are already heading for the WTO option and economic catastrophe.

Would-be chief negotiator Michael Barnier certainly seems to be preparing for the worst, instructing the EU-27 that they have to start preparing now for future customs controls.

To extent to which Mrs May's "Team Brexit" is prepared for this is going to be the acid test. The precursor to many a free trade deal – as in 1997 with the EU and the Republic of Korea – is a customs agreement. It thus stands to reason that this issue will be high up on the work programme. How it is presented and the progress made may give us a strong clue as to how the technical negotiations will proceed.

As it stands, though, on 29 March 2019, we look to be leaving the EU – in good time for the Euro-elections, thus making sure that the current crop of UK MEPs is the last. In one fell swoop, Ukip loses most of its power base.

Such things, though, are mere trivia compared to the momentous events afoot. The phoney war is nearly over and we are about to enter a new phase. No one knows exactly how this is going to pan out, as we are navigating uncharted waters. But, at least, we will shortly be able to count down to our unknown destination.






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