In the year since the most significant UK political vote this century, we have become accustomed to hearing mostly about what the government does not want out of Brexit — not being subject to the European Court of Justice, not being a member of the single market, not being subject to the EU’s common external tariff and not continuing the free movement of people.
The focus on these red lines has meant that British politicians have been content to argue over whether these strictures are the right ones, and the merits of being prepared to “walk away without a deal”. Conspicuously absent from most discussions in Westminster has been any reference to what might actually be in a future free-trade agreement. It has also given Brussels first-mover advantage in setting out what it wants for the immediate negotiations. The past fortnight has shown, however, that in future the ball is likely to move frequently between the EU and UK sides of the court.
While businesses are clearly pleased to have more insight into the government’s plans through a series of white papers, the long period of consultation and reflection (even if justified) has meant a drought of information has suddenly turned into a flood. And so distinguishing the more lucid proposals from pie-in-sky at this early stage can be difficult. Some observers have wholly dismissed the publications as cobbled-together and aimed more at the domestic media than Britain’s negotiating partners.
But there are two problems with that narrative. First, the unprecedented nature of Brexit means anything new is easily dismissible and the UK has taken the plunge in putting those ideas out first. Second, even though they are meant as a basis for negotiations with the EU, the papers are also important for the domestic audience to hear.
It is also not entirely fair to criticise the government’s lack of vision for its new “deep and special partnership” with the EU because, at the moment, Brussels only wants to talk about separation issues. By publishing a series of discursive papers that give options for the future, the government has cleverly found a way of turning parts of a negotiation into a discussion, making use of the EU’s “no trade talks first” dogma to crowdsource opinion on its ideas. Rather than binding themselves into a straitjacket over possible solutions, ministers are trying to simultaneously negotiate what the EU wants to discuss now, while opening up a constructive debate over the future partnership.
While the government has an eye on domestic media management, these future partnership papers are also aimed at the EU audience. The European Commission may find some of the criticisms aimed at the UK’s ideas for post-Brexit customs options too tempting to ignore, particularly given its lack of response so far to complaints that they want to address the Irish question without discussing trade.
One possible result is that the EU’s executive may match the UK in publishing similar papers, in an attempt to swoop in with equally imaginative but more rules-based proposals for managing borders. The commission might even decide it needed to spell out what regulatory relationship it would expect in order to keep trade friction to a minimum.
But such wish lists from either side are less pressing than agreeing all-important interim arrangements. The reality is most businesses do not have time to engage in discussions about any future other than March 2019 right now. Many business groups across Europe are four-square behind the EU’s principles of “maintaining a level playing field” with the UK on trade and regulatory standards, but their members also have to plan and make nearer-term decisions, as UK businesses do.
The final destination may still be up for debate, but avoiding hastily made, last-minute changes unites companies from Dover to Dresden. Comprehensively outlining how to do this needs to be made clear in both sides’ position papers as soon as possible. The EU got there first in its initial negotiating guidelines, when it mooted a time-limited prolonging of the acquits.
For all his criticisms of the UK’s approach, the new Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar himself recently proposed a transition period maintaining current customs and regulatory arrangements while a longer-term free-trade deal was worked out.
We can only hope the message on the importance of prioritising an interim agreement cuts through in the next rounds of negotiation. Businesses across Europe are depending upon it.
The writer is head of Europe and trade policy at the Institute of Directors