Negotiating to leave the EU is going to be harder than the Brexiters would have you think

“So be under no doubt: we can do deals with our trading partners, and we can do them quickly. I would expect that the negotiation phase of most of them to be concluded within between 12 and 24 months.”

David Davis MP, Vote Leave campaign

“I am absolutely convinced this is not doable in two years”

Pascal Lamy, former director general of the WTO

David Davis made it all look so easy. In articles and in tweets, he told us we’d have a wealth of new world-wide trade deals all signed and ready to go on the day we left the EU. He told us Germany and France would be rushing to make individual deals to sell us their cars and their wine. The only problem with this sunny prediction: it was all fiction…

Also fiction was the idea that we could pick and choose which parts of the EU we wanted to take part in. Have access to the Single Market, while curbing immigration. Continue to sell goods and services across Europe, while no longer being bound by European regulations or having to pay a membership fee. It was all a delusion. The EU have made very clear to us that their “four freedoms” are not divisible. We take part in all of them or none.

Throughout the autumn of 2016, that seemed to leave the UK government without a plan, and Brexit without a mandate. The vote had been won on promises that could not be fulfilled. And as time went on, more and more complications and problems piled up. Rather than being a simple matter of quickly negotiating new trade arrangements and being done within two years, it’s now clear that Brexit could take decades to complete.

When we notify the EU that we intend to leave, when we trigger Article 50, we are on a two year count-down. When the two years is up, we are out of the EU whether we’ve agreed a leaving deal or not. Agreeing a deal that doesn’t leave us very much worse off is going to be very difficult indeed.

Lack of experience

One big problem we face is that we don’t have enough experienced negotiators to tackle even one negotiation, and we’re trying to carry out many negotiations all at once. We’re not only trying to carry out a complex departure from the EU and its 27 other nations and 38 regional and national parliaments, but to unpick our laws and regulations from 40 years of integration.

Then we have to set up new border control arrangements, and reach some new settlement for the Irish border, at a time when Northern Ireland is in political crisis.

On top of that we have to secure new trade arrangements with those 27 other EU nations and each one of the 63 non-EU nations who we trade with via EU trade deals. And also to arrange some sort of fallback to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) if any of this goes wrong. And possibly arrange some sort of transition deal with the EU if all this isn’t completed inside two years.

All this mountain of work is before we start considering any of the “quick deals” the Brexit campaign claim we’ll rapidly make with the US, Australia, and India. The EU has experienced negotiators, and so does the WTO. Some reports have said we’d need an additional 30,000 civil servants to carry this off. We haven’t got them.

Is it impossible?

We’re not saying all this is impossible. But it has never been done before. And we are lining up lots of things which all have to happen successfully, which have never before been done in the time we have available.

And don’t forget that even if we can somehow get all the pieces in place on our side, it’s not all down to hard work from the UK’s negotiators, because the pace is going to be dictated by the slowest of those 27 EU nations and 38 regional and national governments. France and Germany have elections coming up. They may not have time to spend on us, they may feel they can’t make far-reaching decisions until their new governments are elected and in place to make those decisions.

All the while, time will be running out.

No, it’s not impossible, but it is as close to impossible as makes no difference.

An escape plan

So you’d expect us to have a fall-back, an escape route. We don’t. It’s all in: Theresa May is betting the entire farm on the roll of the dice, and if she doesn’t roll a hundred sixes in a row we lose everything. If the other 27 countries decline to play our game, we lose. In later articles we’ll show how it is now becoming clear that, even if she does roll those hundred sixes in a row, what we will end up with is a trade, immigration and science situation somewhat worse than we have now — at the very best.

This is not at all what the hard-line Brexiters want to hear. They want a quick, “clean Brexit” completed quickly and without fuss. They want quick trade deals, they want to stop having to abide by “European rules”.

It has become clear that this is going to be fiendishly difficult to achieve, so they are not going to bother. Instead, they appear to be prepared to crash us out of the EU, with no trade deals in place and no membership of the Single Market.

Before we go on to show what a disaster that would be, we’ll take a few moments to ask why on earth the EU would give in to our demands.

The UK left the EU at 23:00 GMT onFriday 31 January 2020
As of 23:00 GMT on 31 January 2020, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a third country with respect to the European Union.