The EU and UK are squaring up for a tough battle as Brexit negotiations get under way. FT Brussels bureau chief Alex Barker looks at a separation process that’s shaping up to be mission impossible.
Creator: David McWilliams. Writer & narration: Alex Barker. Design & animation: Mark Flood. Producer: Aoife O'Brien.
Tick, tick, tick-- the Brexit countdown has started. In as little as two years, by March 2019, Britain will be out of the European Union and making its own way in the world. "At last!" cry the Brexiters.
Mon dieu, mon dieu!
--shout the Remainers. This is mission impossible-- four decades of ties to unwind and just two years to do it. Cue David Davis, a former SAS reservist with a Brexit master plan. As the Article 50 fuse burns down, his job is to ensure a smooth UK escape from euroland. His approach-- aim high, look forward, and move fast. Legacy issues, future trade, money-- Davis wants to do everything at once, by 2019, pinned to an ambitious trade deal.
Standing in his way, Michel Barnier--
--a French montagnard straight out of Gaullist central casting. He wants to go step by step, sorting out the past before talking about the future and any Brexit happy ending. His first topic-- a 60 billion Brexit bill. It's apparently Britain's share of promised EU spending on everything from eurocrat pensions--
--to better Polish commuter trains. That charge alone could derail talks, but it is just one of countless maddeningly complex issues.
Just imagine the life of Maria, a Spaniard who has worked in London for five years. There isn't much doubt that she and three million other EU migrants can carry on living in Britain for the time being. The question is, under what terms? What if Maria marries a Mexican? Would he have EU rights? Will Maria's kids get the usual EU discounts on student fees? And what if her mother fancies living in London? What happens if Maria loses her job or moves company, or moves abroad and asks for a UK pension?
If that sounds tricky, try airlines. Think of what is needed to simply take off from Brexit Britain and land a plane. Pilots licences, air safety certificates, landing commission-- it all rides on EU law, EU regulators, and EU-brokered international agreements, which fall away on Brexit Night.
This is your captain speaking. We'll be experiencing some turbulance--
So without an EU deal, British flights would not just be barred from Europe, they'd lose EU-negotiated access rights to the US and scores of other countries. Each one of those deals has to be renegotiated, and every country will want to be confident Britain has either got an EU transition deal or created a safe, reliable new UK regulator. And all in less than two years? Crikey.
Mexican standoffs, 60 billion ransoms, unmovable deadlines, planes falling from the sky-- this does sound ludicrously dangerous. Surely, good sense will prevail.
[MUSIC - THE REMBRANDTS, "I'LL BE THERE FOR YOU"]
Melodrama is a familiar feature of big Brussels negotiations-- just ask the Greeks. The problem is that this time around, Britain is leaving the EU family, and Barnier and Davis have objectives that are genuinely at odds. Davis wants a smooth process so companies in Britain don't panic and take flight, but Barnier knows that the more uncertainty there is, the more companies will move to the EU 27 and the weaker Britain's hand becomes. His instructions, after all, are to make Brexit look worse than membership.
The tick, tick, tick of the Article 50 clock will only raise the temperature. Indeed, we may know quite soon whether there's any deal to be had at all. For if Barnier and Davis can't agree a rough plan by the end of the year, Brexiters might decide that talking to the Frenchman just isn't worth it.
Davis will need all the time left on that Article 50 clock to start working Brexit independently, without Barnier, without the EU 27 support, and without an exit deal. And that might just be a real mission impossible.
[TIMER COUNTING DOWN]