What to expect after Article 50
Britain's EU divorce will soon start in earnest. FT editor Lionel Barber talks to Janan Ganesh about its impact on UK politics.
Produced by Seb Morton-Clark. Filmed by Rod Fitzgerald.
Britain's Prime Minister, Theresa May, is about to trigger Article 50 and begin the complicated process of the UK's departure from the EU. With me to discuss what we can expect in the coming months is Janan Ganesh, the FT's political commentator. So Janan, what can we expect?
I think as soon as Theresa May files Article 50, she will cause all other subjects in British politics, including ones that she cares a lot about, to disappear to the margins. The only thing the media will be interested in, the only thing that Parliament will be interested in, and I think a big slice of the country as well, will be Brexit and the process of negotiating a deal with the European Union. And that is the opposite of what she has intended since becoming prime minister last year, which was to have more of a domestic agenda as well as a European one.
She thought she could ride two horses-- this big talk about a May philosophy, industrial strategy. You're saying that's for the birds now, for the next two years.
I think so. She just won't have the political capital to do it, and there won't be anyone interested enough to make it worth her while to perceive it. So there is the industrial strategy that she's talked about, a slightly more equal approach to austerity than we saw under David Cameron's premiership-- reforms in education that are very controversial, the potential return of grammar schools, the expansion of free schools, and so on. Quite a big domestic agenda. I just don't think she'll have the energy, the political capital, or the public interest to do very much of it as soon as she invokes Article 50. You will see the oxygen being sucked out of all of those issues.
Of course, the second thing that's going to happen is that we're actually going to hear from the Europeans and what they have to say about the negotiations.
Yeah. I mean, the other side of the negotiating table is what we never talk about in Westminster. We assume that the only variables that matter are internal to British politics. The other half of the deal table, I think, will hold a very hard line against the UK. In my experience, having talked to people both in this country and foreign diplomats in London as well as in other capitals, France is the toughest when it comes to rhetoric. But Germany is absolutely with them on substance. So the two most important countries in the EU will do more than any other to set the line in those negotiations are being very tough indeed.
And the biggest areas of contention-- I mean, there are a lot-- but one of them is this bill for departure. Which I was in Brussels recently talking to Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, and he's put that bill at 60 billion euros.
How can we explain that?
Well, the view in London is that, well, this is just an opening negotiating ploy by the Europeans. They'll say 60 billion. We'll say 10 billion. We'll arrive at 20 or 30, and that would be spread across a long time.
That might be optimistic. Because even if you arrive at that kind of compromise, you will spend the first few months of these negotiations bogged down in a purely financial conversation before the conversation about immigration, how much market access there will be, gets broached. So I imagine that 2017 could be wasted largely on the purely money subject of the negotiations and that the really technically difficult stuff doesn't get addressed until 2018. And by then you can almost audibly hear the clock ticking and the British panicking and thinking, if we don't get a deal on all these complicated issues, we're out on very abrupt terms, potentially WTO terms.
So when Theresa May says Brexit means Brexit, what do you think she means? Is that sort of, well, it's a clean break with a special deal with the EU on trade?
I think they'll hold out hope for a special deal. But at the bare minimum, I think we'll leave the single market. It's the only way to control immigration. Leave the customs union, because it's the only way to do bilateral external trade deals. And I worry, based on recent ministerial statements, we're not even going to have that trade pact with Europe at least anytime soon.
David Davis, the Brexit minister, Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, have begun to float the idea in public that actually it wouldn't be the end of the world were we to leave without even a trade pact. And in my experience, when politicians start tentatively floating an idea in public, they're 3/4 of the way there in private. So I think there's increasing evidence that the very hardest form of Brexit with no trade plan at all--
You don't think that's a negotiating tactic?
No, I think it's a negotiating tactic with the British people. It's the it's the minister saying to the public, this is a very hard idea to swallow. But let's introduce you to it slowly, get used to it, so in 2018 or 2019, if this country leaves on the most abrupt terms without a trade pact, then the ministers have built some kind of public tolerance of that idea.
So just to put you on the spot, Janan, I know you're a bit of a sporting odds man. Sorry about Arsenal, by the way, at the moment. I'm sure they'll come back. But if you had to put odds on a naked Brexit, what would they be?
One in three. People I've talked to behind the scenes, some of them would put it as high as one in two, 50-50 chance. Some of them say as low as 10% chance, but it evens out. The conversations I've had even out at about a 30% chance of the hardest possible Brexit.
Janan Ganesh, great to talk.