Brace yourselves for the impending train wreck of the Brexit negotiations

Brace yourselves for the impending train wreck of the Brexit negotiations

Alastair Meeks on the similarities with 1914

The biggest avoidable catastrophe of the twentieth century was the outbreak of the First World War.  A single act of terrorism emanating from a small pre-modern state was allowed by mishandling by several different nations to escalate into a war that devastated a continent.  Historians continue to argue to this day about the causes.  It is often observed that the Russian mobilisation plans entailed rigid planning.  The steps that the Russians took that were necessary to undertake war became steps that made war almost inevitable.  The process became the plan.

An avoidable catastrophe of the twenty-first century is looming.  From Britain’s unexpected vote to leave the EU last year, mishandling by both Britain and the EU is escalating a tricky but potentially soluble problem into a potentially devastating fiasco.  Once again, the rigid advance planning is the problem.

You could hardly accuse the British of rigid advance planning.  The Cabinet itself is riven over the approach that should be adopted.  As a result, its institutional planning is paralysed.

No, the problem lies with the EU.  It has defined its process as follows:

“The main purpose of the negotiations will be to ensure the United Kingdom’s orderly withdrawal so as to reduce uncertainty and, to the extent possible, minimise disruption caused by this abrupt change.

To that effect, the first phase of negotiations will aim to:

provide as much clarity and legal certainty as possible to citizens, businesses, stakeholders and international partners on the immediate effects of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the Union;

settle the disentanglement of the United Kingdom from the Union and from all the rights and obligations the United Kingdom derives from commitments undertaken as Member State.

The European Council will monitor progress closely and determine when sufficient progress has been achieved to allow negotiations to proceed to the next phase…

… an overall understanding on the framework for the future relationship should be identified during a second phase of the negotiations under Article 50 TEU….

… To the extent necessary and legally possible, the negotiations may also seek to determine transitional arrangements which are in the interest of the Union and, as appropriate, to provide for bridges towards the foreseeable framework for the future relationship in the light of the progress made…

The two year timeframe set out in Article 50 TEU ends on 29 March 2019.”

This is very prescriptive.  But almost all of this process has nothing to do with Article 50’s requirements and instead it has been conjured up by bureaucrats.  In fact, it is doubtful whether this phased approach is aligned with Article 50, since Article 50 requires the EU to act “taking account of the framework for [the departing state’s] future relationship with the Union”, an obligation which is only referenced in the second phase and not at all in the main purpose of the negotiations.  If the second phase is not reached (which has to be a distinct possibility), the EU will have failed to meet its obligations.

Worse, the process is designed to eat up time.  The EU’s Article 50 train lines look rigid and cumbersome.  The items in phase 1 are hardly free from controversy and progress might be slow.  But the matters to be dealt with in phase 2 are also highly important to both sides, and the time to consider them may be very compressed indeed.  Perhaps the idea was that the EU can impose its take on a Britain that by then might be desperate to get a bad deal rather than no deal.  If so, that always looked like a risky gamble but with a hung Parliament it now looks reckless.  If the EU sticks to its agreed plan, the risk of a disorderly departure must be very substantial.  As with the Russian mobilisation arrangements, the process is becoming the plan.

Another similarity with July 1914 also presents itself.  No nation actively wanted a continent-wide war.  But no one wanted peace enough to take the steps necessary to avoid a full conflagration.  Both the EU and Britain want a deal.  But neither at present looks willing to compromise enough to make a deal achievable.  So right now it looks more likely than not that no deal will be achieved.  Brace yourselves.

Alastair Meeks

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