Simon Usherwood, University of Surrey & Deputy Director of the ESRC’s UK in a Changing Europe
A recognised staple of any political process is kicking the can down the road. Sometimes, things are just too complicated, or too political, for a decision to be made right now, so let’s just agree that we’ll sort it out later.
Brexit most assuredly falls into this category. The past couple of years have demonstrated all too vividly that not only are opinions sharply divided but that hardly any one feels confident that they have taken account of all the various aspects involved. If it’s all so complex that even the experts are still finding new things to deal with, then what’s the problem with taking some more time to sort it all out?
You could argue that this view has already been accepted by all involved. Article 50 makes no mention of anything between the end of a country’s membership of the EU and the start of a new relationship, but negotiators have managed to carve out 19 months for a ‘transition’ period. During that time the heavy lifting on the future links between the EU and the UK will be done, sparing the need to do that alongside the work on wrapping up British commitments as a member.
Echoes can also be found in the leaving of the most difficult elements of Article 50 until the end of this summer. This is most obvious with the parking of the Irish dimension with a back-stop arrangement that one party – the UK – is very determined not to implement, but can also be seen in the havering over the role of the Court of Justice beyond transition. And if you’re an EU citizen living in the UK, or a UK one living in the EU27, then you might be justified in feeling that nothing is really settled about your status or your rights.
But all this is to neglect the main point of delaying making decisions: delay cannot be the same as forgetting about it all. At some point chickens come home to roost, bullets have to be bitten and numerous other metaphors get deployed.
And so it is with Brexit. The time is now for making decisions. That can be seen through three lenses.
Legally, transition is a very leaky boat. The EU’s position – and that of most legal scholars – is that the period to December 2020 might just about be within the law, but any extension is impossible.
This comes back to the absence of any language on transition in Article 50 itself, and to the existence of specific alternative provisions for third-state agreements, which is what the withdrawal deal will become. Chuck in some raised eye-brows from the WTO about a provisional agreement that doesn’t really fit their requirements and so you have a recipe that demands the agreement of a future
relationship as soon as possible.
Economically, businesses plan over multi-annual cycles, so there is already a need to have ‘more clarity’ (in Michel Barnier’s phrasing) about what is coming from 2021. Regardless of one’s preferred outcome of the entire process, minimising the costs of uncertainty is still something to be encouraged, for all involved, whether they are farmers or exporters.
Most critical though is the political case. The decision in June 2016 might have been a shock and a blow to many parts of the establishment in Britain and the EU, but that should not be a reason for not engaging with it.
Too much time and effort in the UK has been devoted to revisiting the referendum and its shortcomings, rather than trying to get ahead of the issues and lay out strategies and approaches for handling the outcome.
A constructive and positive tackling of the big questions that face the UK as a result of the referendum should not only be driven by the law or the needs of firms, but much more by a desire to build a society that better reflects collective intentions.
That is not an easy path, especially when trust seems to be in short supply, but the very act of trying might form a basis for rebuilding that trust. The alternative is drift and extemporisation that might seem to offer a short-term way of avoiding the pain, but which cannot be a stable basis for our future.
The longer that we fail to try to address the problems that face us, the harder that will become and the more likely that our range of choices will be constricted and constrained by others. If we don’t act, then others will act for us, either intentionally or unintentionally. Brexit is a very big challenge to many aspects of how the UK governs itself and how it conceives its relationship with the countries that surround it, and it’s not going to get any smaller.
Part of that will be about maintaining the dense network of social, economic and personal links across Europe and using that to support a collective discussion. That’s not simply a call to academics to talk to each other and to contribute to public debate, but also a call to people from all walks of life to take the opportunity to shape their future.