If there is anything we might be able to take from the recent words of Tony Blair, it is that for the current UK government it is Brexit at all cost. This may have very important practical implications for the deal that will be negotiated indeed, assuming of course this deal will be there anyway in the end. Leaving no room open to redraw from the end goal of Brexit may in fact put the UK in a vulnerable negotiating position and also increase the risk of (broader) European disintegration.
Polls make it clear that a solid majority of people in the UK now feel we need to get on with Brexit, i.e. the time has passed reverse the decision to trigger article 50. Certain European officials also consider that the way to Brexit is now ‘deeply institutionally embedded’ and therefore cannot be reversed. Obviously in fact it can. History is fraught with policy reversals and a non-Brexit would thus be no exception. If there should be no naivety (as Juncker seemed to suggest speaking in front of the Belgian Federal Parliament) about the potentially opportune attitude of the British government in the negotiation of a new UK-EU relationship, there should equally be no overestimation of the strength of current institutional arrangements. Ultimately this is a much politicized process and both the 27 remaining Member States (via Qualified Majority Voting and with the consent of the European Parliament) and the UK need to agree upon a final deal.
So far the public knows very little about the way the negotiations will be conducted and what the substance and substantive outcomes will be. Whereas there may be good reasons for the involved parties to be intransparent at present about their negotiating directives, a real democratic Brexit would imply a thorough understanding of the room for manoeuvre during the negotiations as much as an awareness and Parliamentary check on the final outcome.
To start, although it would be undesirable both for the UK and for the remaining EU 27 (to varying degrees) not to reach an agreement within the 2 year standard term on the future relationship/transitional arrangements, it may be safely assumed that the UK would be harder hit by ‘falling off the cliff’ than the EU27. It might in fact even be the case that certain member states would find it desirable to push towards the 2 year limit, as they would stand to lose relatively little to what they may be able to win from the UK if the UK wants to prevent falling off the cliff. Of course, the reality will be that the UK, to still with the falling metaphor, will not fall all that deep. The country is mostly compliant with EU law and will still have these laws and regulations in place when it exits the EU.
The issues lie more with potential dispute settlement and the phasing out of the EU budget, including compensation for parties that would stand to lose from not obtaining EU funds anymore. Obviously however a more dangerous situation would rise when the rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU would come under pressure. This is perhaps the most important point as the UK will not wish to jeopardize its international reputation over the rights of European citizens.
Therefore, it is likely that the ball lies mainly in the court of the EU27. Individual member states might be tempted to push for the limit also because this will give them a veto over the extension of negotiations, perhaps implicitly also influencing the previous negotiations to their particular benefit, both in terms of particular direct demands towards the UK and when it comes to influencing the other member states to shift the European Council Guidelines which will set the tone for the EU negotiator.
If the terms would then turn out to be unacceptable to the UK and its citizens, there would, international lawyers would agree, be a way back after triggering article 50, but this would then have to be with the consent of the EU27, which itself might come to be increasingly puzzled in the process over the vision for European integration. Being in that position would clearly limit the posturizing the UK could have for a long time to come. If a rethink were thus to come to pass, the timeframe for triggering article 50 would obviously need to be readjusted from its current expectations in order to build this consensus and steer clear from further impediments on British sovereignty. No major movement in this direction has been detected so far, but in a time where uncertainty is a central feature of the political landscape, nobody can claim the truth on what will happen.
By Jorn Moeskops