God moves in mysterious ways his wonders to perform. At first sight, it seemed to me that the chaos and confusion that was created over the weekend was throwing a cartload of spanners into the already parlous state of the Article 50 negotiations. However, this hellish combination of farcical cock-ups might just be a catalyst for a reasonable outcome of the whole thing; and oddly, little Eire might be the key that unlocks the door to a sensible solution.
Nevertheless, it is of course necessary first to deal with the ridiculous notion of a “transitionary period” or “implementation period” as Mrs. May calls it, which absolutely everyone on this side of the water now takes as a done deal. On the other side, there has been a lukewarm welcome to this oh so British attempt at compromise, for no other reason than that it indicates a willingness to pay billions of euros more than we need to. Monsieur Barnier, however, being one of the few persons actually to have read Article 50, has stated clearly the truism that there cannot be any such period UNLESS IT FORMS A TERM OF THE AGREEMENT. His wise words, unfortunately, have been completely drowned out by all the noise.
This is an immensely important point which it will be helpful to unpack here. There is a beautiful, almost poetic simplicity to the Article 50 procedure, which every politician and journalist in the UK ignores, and therefore spouts rubbish. It gives the UK an absolute and guaranteed right to leave the EU (by being released from its Treaties) without paying anything at all at a specified moment, i.e. when midnight chimes in Brussels on 28 March 2019, but only if no Agreement has been finalised before that moment. If there is such an Agreement, the effect of finalising it is exactly the same, in that the UK leaves the EU by being released from its Treaties.
An Article 50 Agreement can, of course, be finalised at any time during the 2 years it provides for that purpose. There is no prescribed form or minimum length for it. As long ago as March this year I showed how it could be reduced to one side of A4 paper. Accordingly, if there were no ill feeling, no bitterness, no greed, and a genuine willingness to achieve the best possible outcome for all concerned, an Article 50 Agreement could be finalised by the end of next month, at which point the UK would be released from the Treaties of the EU. Sadly, that is not how it is.
Given these facts, let us return to the idea of a transition period or a period in which to implement something. We have established that such a provision would have to form part of the Agreement. That Agreement must, of course, set out the future relationship between the UK and the EU, including its trading terms, cooperation arrangements, citizens’ rights, etc. Unless there is going to be some dramatic change in any of those things, there is no transition and nothing to implement.
The ideal, of course, is that there should indeed be no such significant change. The UK starts from a highly advantageous position because ALL THESE MATTERS ARE ALREADY IN PLACE; there is, therefore, nothing complicated to be agreed.
At this point, let us nevertheless assume a hypothetical transition period which is set to expire on 29 March 2021. This would not remove any so-called “cliff edge”; it would merely postpone it to that time. Moreover, there is absolutely no reason to imagine that the EU would be any more reasonable in 2021 than they have been in 2017; so all it would achieve is that we carry on paying £161 million net every week to the EU for two years more than we need to; ah yes! One extraordinary development over the weekend was the astonishing change of view at the BBC. Having roundly condemned the Foreign Secretary for saying that it cost the UK all this money, it then pointed out following Mrs. May’s Florence speech that it would have to pay all that money for another two years!!!
The other interesting development was the gentle increase in urgent voices calling on the civil service to start making preparations NOW for a “no deal Brexit”.
This brings us back neatly to Monsieur Barnier and his team. They are terrified out of their skulls that the March 2019 deadline is reached without Agreement, as that means they get no “divorce bill” payment, and EU exporters to the UK get WTO tariffs slapped on them.
This terror means that the UK is in an IMMENSELY STRONG BARGAINING POSITION.
Indeed, that position has been strengthened even more by the very intransigence of the EU, and that is where Eire comes in. Stating the obvious, Eire is “one of the 27”; it is very much part and parcel of the EU and will so remain after the UK is released from the Treaties. It is because of this that I am genuinely surprised that the EU in general, and over the weekend Monsieur Macron in particular, have chosen to make the solution to the Irish border issue a condition precedent for further talks to proceed.
Eire, as a member of the EU, is absolutely bound by the single market and the customs union. It is FORBIDDEN from reaching any sort of independent trade deal with any non-EU nation.
Savour that point for a moment.
The background to this is that everyone knows, although nobody on the EU side admits it, that it is in the interests of ALL concerned that free and seamless trade is maintained between the EU and the UK post-Brexit.
Equally importantly, such a solution is the ONLY one which will work for Ireland if the fragile peace which has existed since the Good Friday agreement is to me be preserved.
What the UK must do very soon, therefore, is to call the EU’s bluff; and the very first point we must make to them is that we KNOW they are terrified out of their skulls that the UK might leave in March 2019 without agreement. The second point we make is that AS A MATTER OF EU LAW, the trading deal on the Irish border binds the whole of the EU. We then give them 28 days to reach a sensible agreement along the lines of the detailed documents we have supplied, together with the offer of a sweetener, say 5 billion euros, IF AND ONLY IF they so agree. If the offer is not accepted, our parting shot is that in those circumstances we walk away from the table and wait for our merciful release.