Today Theresa May will make an important speech in Florence which, if she’s serious about getting what she describes as a “good deal for the UK”, will finally outline a grown-up and positive negotiating position on Brexit.
Six months after Article 50 was triggered, we still have no clear idea what May’s position on Brexit really is. The UK government triggered Article 50 before it had worked that out. Then the UK government wasted 3 months on a general election that enfeebled its already shaky position. Then there was posturing and a series of snubs from the UK; May didn’t even turn up to the EU’s celebration to mark 60 years since the Treaty of Rome and Boris boycotted the EU foreign ministers’ special meeting after Donald Trump’s election. I am ashamed that we offered no help to our EU friends to tackle the desperate refugee crisis hitting our continent. We turned our backs. And Dr Fox? Well the least said about him…
We were told endlessly that Brexit meant Brexit.
But today is May’s opportunity to present a negotiating position that the EU can actually start to negotiate with. The EU is losing patience and goodwill. If May doesn’t bring something to the table, the EU will also lose interest and turn its attention instead to the issues it wants to prioritise, like immigration, terrorism, the risks from Putin’s Russia and what we do about Trump. Frankly, the EU will move on.
If we don’t start negotiating seriously, there will be no deal – there is no chance the EU will extend the two years the UK has to negotiate simply because the UK has dithered, quibbled and postured. The only conceivable reason why the EU would extend that two-year period would be to allow for a second referendum, or a general election called to allow the British people a say in the final deal.
So, today is a big day for May. She must outline a framework for the ‘deep and special partnership’ she says she wants with the EU after Britain leaves. She needs start to progress real negotiations on the Irish border issue, on the rights of EU citizens and on the “divorce bill” and only then can we start to talk about a future trade relationship.
According to Lord Kerr, who wrote Article 50: “Without a deal, the UK will not hit a cliff-edge, it will fall off a precipice. It will become a rule-taker, not a rule-maker. No deal would be a very bad deal indeed for Britain”. With goodwill behind them, trade deals take years to sign and if we don’t agree on the divorce bill there will be no goodwill, no relationship at all with the EU when we leave and no trade deals to be had.
If this all makes depressing reading for the Remainers among us then here are a few crumbs of comfort:
We can still revoke Article 50. No harm done. We’d remain in the EU on the current terms; rebate intact.
We can call a second referendum, or go back to the people with the deal that May, if she’s smart, will start to negotiate today.
But for the UK to have these options the current EU Withdrawal Bill needs to be amended. The Lords is our next hope of getting meaningful amendments inserted (oh, the irony! when so many Leavers voted out because the EU was ‘undemocractic’!). Then there are the devolved institutions; the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies. Perhaps even Sadiq Khan in City Hall, who can speak for the two thirds of Londoners who voted to Remain and who has said it is priority to defend the financial importance of the City and the EU citizens who live here. He is not subject to a Labour whip in Parliament, he’s his own man, and he’s made no secret of his wish for us to stay in the EU.
If these voices are heard – and to ignore them might well trigger a constitutional crisis – then there is a chance the EU Withdrawal Bill can be amended to reflect something closer to what Remainers would like to see.
It’s a long shot. And a long way off. For now, May needs to get serious in Florence and start real negotiations.