Where are we now on Brexit?

31st January 2018

My apology for the lack of posts: I was unwell from before Christmas until a few days ago.

There is everything, and nothing, to say about Brexit.

The same hard facts are still there, and looming.

The UK will leave the EU by automatic operation of international law on 29 March 2019, unless something not now in view happens.

The UK government does not know what it wants, and there is no UK Brexit policy worth the name.

The EU27 do know what they want and, again unless something not now in view happens, that will be what the UK gets – both in terms of transition arrangements and future relationship.

There is less and less time for there to be any further referendum before 29 March 2019.  Nor is there any real time left for a “Remain” reversal of the Brexit process.

Any “transition” arrangements will be for the the full acquis of EU law, and all the paraphernalia of EU obligations, but without any formal presence in any institution – this is, as somebody has said, vassal status.

And it remains (bleedingly) obvious that the Article 50 period should be extended substantially beyond 29 March 2019 to give UK more time, but this seems as politically impossible as ever.

What is changing is the steady reduction of time, and the widening awareness of UK’s inability to address the problems.

All this, and nobody knows what will happen.

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32 thoughts on “Where are we now on Brexit?”

  1. Sorry to hear you have been unwell but you have returned in fine form, summing up the vacuum at the heart of the UK Government. I am not British but if I were I would be even more depressed about the future of the UK than I already am. Let’s hope “something turns up” between now and March next year.

    By the way, when I last looked at the EU Brexit website I noticed that the two year A.50 notice period expires at 12 midnight Central European Time which is one hour ahead of British time. So the UK won’t even last till midnight on its final day in the EU. I think I am right about this and it seems logical as the EU is based in Brussels!
    No doubt the Brexiters will rejoice.

  2. In your opinion do the recent comments made by MP Phillip Lee on Twitter indicate how the government may act in the coming months? Historically he seems to be strongly supportive of Theresa May so it seems unlikely he would say or do anything that would intentionally harm her.

  3. Welcome back David – sorry to hear you were ill – hope it wasn’t serious. The most important thing is that you are better.

    As for the post – an excellent summary. Sadly I think we are just going to have to go through the pain. We need to start making plans for how we recover – and find reliable, competent, moderate people to lead that process.

    @HuwSayer

  4. I wonder if the amendment won by Grieve for there to be a required vote to approve withdrawl of the UK from the EU isn’t now a Brexit Achillies’ heel. Should the vote not pass then the UK would not have satified its own “constitutonal arrangements” for leaving the EU and would therefore be unable to meet the conditions of Article 50. Could it still leave in this case and (essentially) against the will of its parliament?

    I would think that if a “final” plebiscite on the terms of leaving the EU were mooted before “Brexit day” that the EU27 would agree to suspend A50 notification until the result was available. I also believe (perhaps optimistically) that should A50 be withdrawn one way or another, that constitutionally, the government could revert to the status quo ante without major constitutional problems. A50 remains a sovereign issue and the EU and its leading states have made it clear that a de facto reversal is welcome unti the fateful day.

  5. I just sent a very similar note to my clients. I’m very glad there was nothing in there that contradicts your concise and accurate assessment of where we are.

    Never in recent history has a developed country voluntarily done something so counter to its own economic interests whilst destroying its reputation internationally, primarily due to the lack of understanding of the political leaders undertaking the policy.

    1. I think your, “… the lack of understanding of the political leaders undertaking the policy.” is quite unreasonably forgiving. In my view the particular political leader undertaking the policy saw an opportunity that she had never expected, to seize prime ministerial power that would carry her into history.

      Did she once pause to consider the worth of the ‘majority’ – the justification for taking the 52:48 ratio as ‘the will of the people’? I will answer my own question with a damning “Never”. I believe, and if I am wrong I would appreciate irrefutible evidence to the contrary, that this referendum was advisory and that any mature & responsible politician would have recognised that such a miniscule affirmation of “Leave” could not be contemplated as adequate justification for embarking on the course she chose for the past 17-months. She chose the course because it offered her that post which she had never expected and, as we have seen in the subsequent machinations, she is totally inadequate to exercise.

      So I would submit that the UK’s absurd posturings since the accession of Mrs May should rather be viewed as the wriggling & slithering of a 2nd-rate politician determined to retain her own ‘power’ (such as it is, the only real power she has is to resign, & thereby destroy her own party) rather than the UK collectively deciding to commit suicide.

  6. Your recovery is indeed good news.

    Sadly, it seems about the only good news I have read, thus far into this new year. The FT recently ran a report which, to me, epitomised the UK’s position on Brexit: “jump now, argue later”.

    Would I be incorrect to conclude that this, in fact, represents the present Administration’s de facto Brexit policy?

    1. I’m afraid you’re right . The objective is “get out at any cost by the end of March 2019 ” – the type of deal is irrelevant . Once this date passes there’s no hope of getting back in , at least in the short term.

  7. Glad to see you are in better (and hopefully “best”) health.

    Logically, it is quite true that “unless something not now in view happens,” the outcome must be one of the things currently in view. But new things have a habit of coming into view. In the case of Brexit, new things happen almost every minute of every day.

    As we saw from the first round of negotiations, those of us sitting outside the negotiating chamber can’t tell how things are going until it is done. It’s scary – white-knuckle ride scary – and provides endless material for commentators to write about.

    The fact that one party hasn’t said what it wants from the negotiation doesn’t mean that it doesn’t know. The fact that the other party has set out an (extreme) opening position doesn’t mean that it has a clear idea of what final position it would be willing to accept.

    1. “The fact that the other party has set out an (extreme) opening position doesn’t mean that it has a clear idea of what final position it would be willing to accept.”

      Any evidence the EU will be willing to water down its requirements? AFAIK the negotiated Phase I terms do not water down any of the original negotiating position. If you think they do, an example would be appreciated.

      1. Their starting point on citizens’ rights was that the CJEU had to have the final say. The joint report at the end of Phase 1 said that UK courts may refer matters to the CJEU for up to 8 years.

        That’s the only one I can thing of, though.

  8. I think Matt is wrong when he says ” lack of understanding of the political leaders undertaking this policy”.
    I think that they, and the rich newspaper owners behind the policy, want to reduce Britain to a giant tax haven, for their rich friends benefit, being serviced by a docile slave economy, which will have all legal protection for the vassals removed.

    Bill W

  9. Welcome back, your observations and clarity have been missed.

    Something will turn up, that is what happens when no decisions are made. It seems clear that leaving will have an economic cost but to what short term benefit? The Government now needs to come up with a requisite fudge to avoid any clear policy within the planning horizon, politicians are expected to do that and have enough skill to convince a population now getting bored with the arguments. I can see a 100 year transition being a practical short term to come to full agreement. The arguments could then continue until nobody can remember what the noise is all about or something more practical tuns up.

  10. I accept that the political will to reverse Article 50 in the UK is not yet even modestly developed. However, there are signs. A member of the UK government for the first time (albeit a lowly under Secretary of State) has publicly challenged the view that the referendum result should take precedence over a decision that Brexit is evidently bad for the UK.

    And on top of this, the clear position of Tusk and now Juncker is that UK can choose to Remain. European politicians are climbing over each other to give the same message. And it’s being channeled diplomatically too – the latest voice is the outgoing German ambassador to the UK.

    If Davis cannot successfully resist the characterization of the transition as “vassal state”, prevent damaging forecasts being made public or provide for a future framework that is genuinely ambitious then a second referendum will grow more likely. And there’s no problem providing time for that – even by extending Article 50 at the last moment.

  11. Good to hear you’re back.
    The position at the moment calls into mind a phrase that was much used about social security issues and US politics in the nineties: for politicians, social security was a third rail: anybody foolish to touch it would be electrocuted.
    So it is for the Tory party: but the electric charge of the Brexit debate doesn’t so much kill as grasp the party more and more tightly to its doleful charge, with neither side being able to free itself so as to rise above the debate. For the Labour party, quite unfairly, its current “stance” (which might more accurately be termed a happenstance) has meant that the Brexit debate is seen to be “owned” by the Tory party, thus happily leaving the Labour party (that is equally divided) untouched in electoral terms.
    But if this accurately portrays the ineptitude of both parties, how likely is it that either party will blow up and call a halt to the process? David a.k.a. Jack of Kent is certainly right in saying that for the moment this is “not now in view”.
    But I would not exclude a major change – call it a revolution – in the course of 2018. Following the brief truce following December’s Brussels negotiations on budget payments, citizens’ rights and the Irish border (albeit achieved through linguistic gymnastics that are unlikely to survive the test of implementation) once again the big fault lines within the Tory Party are wide open.
    For a Tory party traditionally marked by discipline and the beneficiary of Labour’s feuding tendencies, the penny will one day drop: stop feuding. And the only way to do that will be to drop the Brexit exercise. But that will require the swivel-eyed to stop and think and they’re not ready to do that.
    Yet.

  12. Welcome back to health.

    Regarding the time available to arrange a second referendum, does this also include establishing whether to government has the power to implement all the options they offer?

    Assuming our negotiators arrive a a deal we could easily offer the “Noel Edmunds” choice between Deal or No Deal. The cynic in me thinks that a great way to get a mandate for shooting yourself in the foot is to present it as a choice against decapitation.

    However of greater interest to most of those pressing such a vote would be a re run of the in-out referendum. Aside from a few encouraging words from the EU27, it’s not clear that the government has the power to offer an option to reverse Article 50. At best they could present an option of reapplying for membership straight after leaving.

    Nor does clarity on the Article 50 matter look to be forthcoming any time soon. So not only is there little time to legislate for a second referendum there’s even less time to establish formally that Article 50 can be reversed before trying to put that option on a ballot.

  13. David:
    I join others in hoping that your recovery is permanent.

    The position of musing members of the UK government and of EU Commission leaders seems to be that the UK has a unilateral option to revoke the Article 50 notice at any time up to the March 29, 2019 date. This seems unsupported by any language in the treaty. It seems contrary to any legal construction of the treaty’s language, including the words addressing agreements to extend the time. Such extension seems to require a special majority agreement by the EU members. I note that the “constitutional requirements” language reads on the giving of the notice and seems to have been dealt with by the Supreme Court and the subsequent Act of Parliament.

    If that legal analysis is correct, the mere elapse of time without a mutual agreement to extend, at a minimum, will make the UK exit self implementing. Are both the government and the EU Commission mistaken and deluding themselves? Seems like a critical legal question.

  14. Sorry to hear you have been ill and I hope you’re fully well again soon. Since Christmas, I have been avoiding Brexit by sticking my head in the sand and making like an ostrich, because I am tired of fulminating. Until the other day, when the French authorities required me to have a bunch of documents translated by an embassy-approved translator in order to ‘regularise’ my position here. This is out of the blue: I’ve lived here 20 years. Some Brit parents are now being told their children can’t go on school trips ‘because you’ve left the EU’. Brits are being refused jobs ‘because you might have to leave’. Scadloads ARE leaving – most people I know are retired and on restricted incomes, and the exchange rate differential is killing them. So, we Brits in the EU aren’t best pleased by the government’s shenanigans and their inability or unwillingness to secure our positions in the EU27.

  15. Meanwhile here in the detached bit of the UK which will remain joined to the EU we still have no idea of how the Border issue can be worked or fudged. Crashing out of the EU might be fine in England, but has the makings of a disaster here. It doesn’t help that N Ireland hasn’t had a devolved government for over a year.

    The Irish question was never properly solved a century ago; but now power has shifted from the UK to Ireland, something that’s not making happy bunnies of the Brexiters.

  16. Good to see this blog back, and I hope that your health continues to let you keep writing it!

    On the “running out of time” point:
    Isn’t the assumption that 29th March 2019 is an inevitable and unchangeable leaving date based on a mistake? Para 3 of Article 50 says that the treaty ceases to apply – ie the departing state departs – on the date that the withdrawal agreement comes into effect. Usually, such an agreement contains within it the date that it will come into effect. It is only if no agreement is reached that the second anniversary becomes the default leaving date.

    To my recollection it was simply assumed in the article 50 letter that the second anniversary would be the leaving date, and that seems to have been accepted by the EU without further discussion. The political outline of the withdrawal agreement is still to be put into binding legal text, and it seems to me that a different date (31 December 2020, for example) could be written into that agreement at this stage. Indeed, if my reading of this point is right, a leaving date, whether 29 March 2019 or another one, has to be written into the legal text.

    1. Replying to myself to add the rider that yes, of course I understand that what might be technically possible might not be politically acceptable to the tail that wags the tory party dog…

  17. Glad to hear you’re back on form!

    So the short version is: clueless incompetence rules the United Kingdom, and Brexit scenarios called ‘Eating raw turnips in the dark’ are still plausible.

  18. Jack/David – with apologies if I mis-state your personal position on Brexit – my recollection is that you were neither for nor against at the time of the referendum.

    Hypothetically, what is your position now between a May Brexit vs Remain?

  19. The Tory party is divided. To keep the party united, the remainers, less extremist, have to appease the leavers, most extremist, even though they’re the minority. Why? Because the extremists won’t for a sec try to appease anyone; they just like throwing a rant, accusations, black & white thinking, and blackmail.

    But Brexit will be bad, and then the electorate will punish Tory extremists _as well as_ non-extremists (i.e., collaborators/conformists).

    And the Tories will lose power in a G.E. anyway, but will do so _after_ Brexit is done, instead of before. All this pain, just to win _one_ extra GE, the last one before the end. Pain inflicted on everybody, just because some won’t let go.

    After that, the future is one of remorse, shame. People asking themselves ‘Why did we allow this to happen?’, just as Germans asked themselves after having enabled Hitler for so long. And a future of debasement, humiliation, vassal state, for the country — as opposed to what might have been (true greatness even), had they not been so arrogant and greedy. Swallowed pride. Or else, pride intact (albeit mixed with guilt, a feeling of inadequacy, and the feeling they’re being wronged), and for the bulk of them, poverty. Greater social inequality and the last chapter in the history of the empire. Precisely a Greek tragedy, played for real, and in Modern English read out loud. The great britain whose brain’s so small. The great britain of the hunger growls. And people in an island, cold.

  20. How much time does the UK need? If the 29th of March is extended would it resolve the fundamental conflicts? Not really. May has come in for a lot of criticism for invoking Article 50 in March 2017 which was NINE MONTHS after the referendum. If you weren’t going to get your act together in 9 months you were never going to get it together. In reality May no alternative to invoke it when she did. Conservative party pressure and mounting impatience by the EU made it inevitable. It’s now nearly two years since the referendum and a year since invoking Article 50 and Britain still hasn’t got its act together.

    Incidentally I entirely buy your thesis that process beats publicity and that plan beats no plan. Miracles don’t just happen. They are the result of a lot of process.

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