Rushing to the exit is not in Britain's interest

A serious commitment to leaving does not require the Govt to commit to flying out of the union like a bat out of hell.

Published: 18th August 2016 10:09 AM  |   Last Updated: 18th August 2016 10:09 AM   |  A+A-


It's been two months since Britain voted to leave the EU. Two months, but it feels like an age in politics. That must be why some Brexiteers are already getting restless.

A few days ago, we saw screaming headlines warning that Brexit might not be completed "until 2019". 2019! Why, that's all of... three years away. It took Britain four years to build an Olympic stadium and more than 15 years to build a high-speed rail line. Yet some impatient Brexiteers, such as John Redwood, believe it should take less than three to rebuild an independent legal system.

Although it might be frustrating for passionate campaigners, it would be better to choose our moment carefully, rather than rushing to the exit. A serious commitment to leaving does not require the Government to commit to flying out of the union like a bat out of hell.

The first reason to proceed at a stately pace is that we need to get our own house in order. The set-up of Britain's foreign, trade and Brexit departments has already sparked a ministerial turf war. We don't have enough trade negotiators or lawyers. And it would be better if clear lines of command, staffing and seniority are established before negotiations start. What is currently happening is a game of ping pong: ministers want policies from their civil servants, but the civil servants need direction to be set from above.

Most importantly on the domestic front, the public needs to understand more about how the negotiation will work and how the Government will decide Britain's position. Those who say this is obvious need to think again. It's obvious that freedom of movement must go, for example, but could it be phased out gradually? Should the UK offer to treat EU citizens more favourably than others in return for better trading terms? And beyond every major issue raised in the campaign, there are thousands of smaller ones.

Deciding a strategy will take time, in other words, not just because of the formal processes such as writing policy papers and hiring trade negotiators, but because of the ineffable, informal processes that inform the national debate. It's obvious that some voters wouldn't accept any compromises with the EU whatsoever, but most have a more moderate position. The Government needs time to sound out where the consensus lies and could even hold a general election.

The second reason to wait is that rushing would play into the hands of Britain's enemies. As soon as the votes were counted, hardliners in Europe called for a swift triggering of Article 50, the EU's mechanism for leaving. They included Jean-Claude Juncker, the chief Eurocrat, as well as the French and German foreign ministers, Jean-Marc Ayrault and Frank Steinmeier, both socialists.

None of these figures is a friend of the UK because their priority is to stop others following in our footsteps. Their desire is to make leaving as chaotic as possible for Britain. Brexiteers who agree with them should pause. Why were these hostile figures calling for us to leave even before we had a stable government in place? Because rushing hands the negotiating advantage to the EU.

Once Article 50 is triggered, Britain has no legal right to extend negotiations beyond the two-year minimum. Leaving with no new legal framework or trading deal in place is highly risky for our economy because the EU is thoroughly built into British law. In some cases, such as many post-2008 financial regulations, we simply use EU legislation and haven't even written our own. Leaving without replacing these laws would throw thousands of contracts into legal limbo. Large parts of the City could become a giant tangle of lawsuits.

We can rewrite some EU law quickly, but not all of it. Replacing it will be complex, because the more UK laws differ from Brussels', the more reluctant European countries will be to let UK companies sell products and services freely inside the EU.

The third reason not to be hasty is that there are other political shifts going on in the EU. The first reaction to Brexit was anger and hurt, fuelling a desire for revenge in some quarters. That will fade, and attitudes could change if anti-EU parties gain ground.

Next year, France, Germany and the Netherlands go to the polls. During big electoral years, Brussels becomes particularly dysfunctional because leaders who are campaigning for

re-election turn inwards and focus on domestic, not foreign, policy. So if Britain triggers Article 50 at the start of 2017, London could waste months making no progress with hardliners in Brussels while finding it impossible to get friendly politicians abroad to speak up for us.

Brexiteers who want to rush to the exits are stuck in a bunker mentality. They still don't believe they've won and they think their victory will be stolen. It would be cannier to present Brexit as the new reality that everyone must accept. Britain's relationship with the EU will change forever. Now is the time to do the hard work of figuring out what settlement will replace it. It might all be very tiresome and annoying, but it will be a huge part of Britain's foreign and economic policy for decades to come. The UK is a country of world-class administrators, diplomats and negotiators. Theresa May and the Brexiteers must give them time to do their jobs.


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