Brexit? Two years is not a long time for any international treaty negotiation

Access to single market and freedom of movement are often mentioned as points of possible collision but the process will be also extremely complex so looking at possible options UK and the EU have regarding Brexit how much do you think it is realistic or unrealistic to conclude negotiations in two years (unless the European Council grants an extension)? Read few comments.

Michael Geary, Assistant Professor of Contemporary European and International History, Maastricht University, Global Fellow, Wilson Center

Assuming Theresa May can activate Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty by the end of March, exit negotiations will likely commence in early summer. This gives Britain around 18 months to conclude a divorce settlement, unless the European Council grants an extension.

Access to the Internal Market is crucial for Britain but this will come with a price. There is a great deal of tension within the UK government over the free movement of people, another one of the 4 freedoms enshrined in the treated since the 1950s. Brussels has made it clear that London cannot have preferential treatment with one freedom and not the others; they are a package. The concern in Brussels is that if London gets access to the single market without free movement of EU citizens, other member states might be inclined to leave the EU and seek similar sweet deals. This is why the EU is going to strike a very hard bargain. This is not necessarily about Brexit; it is about creating a precedent.

During the Brexit negotiations, France, Germany, the Netherlands and possibly Italy will hold national elections, further delaying decisions at EU level. Brexit might be delayed further depending on the outcomes to these elections. Additionally, Brexit and the type of deal London is seeking might feature negatively during these electoral campaigns piling further pressure on the EU to push for a hard Brexit.

The harder the negotiating positions, the stronger the likelihood that negotiations will not conclude before the clocks stop. It is highly unlikely and unrealistic that the dual process of negotiating an exit and securing a new deal as a non-member will end on time. Renegotiating 43 years of membership, while designing as post-membership settlement in 24 months or less is simply impossible. It is worth remembering that the recently concluded EU-Canada trade deal took 7 years to negotiate.

Han Dorussen, Professor, Department of Goverment, University of Essex

The Treaty of Lisbon clearly stipulates the two year deadline. The short time frame to complete negotiations advantages the EU at the expense of any country wanting to leave. This is no coincidence but clearly by design. Michel Barnier, the main EU negotiator, has commented that the actual time to reach an agreement is even shorter, and his comments reveal that the EU is planning to use any deadline to its full advantage. Similarly, Theresa May and her main ‘Brexit’ ministers were keen to initiate side-negotiations, which would have effectively extended the two year period. For obvious reasons, the EU has not fallen for this ruse, leaving the British government with little option than to initiate Article 50.

Although it will be difficult, negotiations thus will have to conclude within two years. As the deadline approaches, the negotiating position of the UK will worsen further. The best outcome for the UK would be to reach a quick ‘interim’ settlement that confirms its decision to leave the EU and thus re-establishes its controls over immigration at least in theory. At the same time, the details of the practice of the free movement of people and the details over access to the Single Market would remain under discussion. In effect, this would allow Theresa May to claim that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ without altering the status quo too much. Because the UK would also become less attractive to EU citizens as a place to look for work, the deal may even take the heat out of the UK domestic political debate.

It is harder to predict whether such an interim deal would be acceptable to the rest of the EU. East European countries have an interest in protecting the free movement of people—at least for the moment. Some West European countries are interested in diverting as much investment as possible away from the UK to the continent–particularly in the hugely profitable banking sector. Clearly, there is little appetite to give the UK a ‘good deal’, and the EU can simply wait and get the ‘best deal’ possible after two years. At the same time, the EU has plenty of other crises to deal with and Brexit can easily become seen as a distraction.

Frank Häge, Senior Lecturer in Politics, Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Limerick

Whether it is realistic to conclude negotiations within two years depends primarily on how much resources will be devoted to the negotiations and how much good will both sides will show. It is an enormous task to disentangle the two legal systems and resolve the fiscal linkages between the UK and the rest of the EU. To have any chance of being concluded within two years, negotiations will probably need to proceed on different issues in parallel. In order to do that, you need sufficient personnel, expertise and other resources on both sides. In terms of good will, both sides need to be ready to compromise. Current statements do not suggest that they are, but this might just be posturing.

But the question is not so much whether negotiations will conclude within two years, the question is whether they will conclude with a comprehensive agreement. If there is no agreement within two years, the UK will simply cease to be a member of the EU and be treated like any other third country, losing any preferential access to the Single Market. While access to the UK market is important for EU member states, the UK is much more dependent on access to the EU’s market. It seems that the UK government has not realized (or at least does not publicly acknowledge) in what an extremely weak negotiation position it will find itself. If there is no agreement within two years and the UK just drops out, it will be a hick-up for the rest of the EU, but an economic shock of enormous proportions to the UK. The UK is under huge pressure to conclude a replacement agreement, the EU not so much. And while nobody in the EU has an incentive to ‘punish’ the UK for leaving, the EU has a very big incentive to make sure that exiting the EU is not perceived to be a beneficial option.

Simon UsherwoodAssociate Dean, Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics, University of Surrey

Two years is not a long time for any international treaty negotiation, especially one that will have effects across the whole range of public policy. Leaving the EU means unpicking over 40 years of adjustments by British government, businesses and individuals, so the negotiators will need to make sure that they have covered as much as possible when they talk. In addition, there is still a basic problem that the British government still doesn’t know what it wants to achieve from the negotiations: it talks about both limiting free movement and retaining access to the single market, which are not immediately compatible positions, so at some point it has to decide which of these it thinks is more important. In essence, this means making a choice between minimising economic costs and securing political gain. Given that this has not been resolved in the five months since the referendum, it is obvious that there is no easy answer.

Miguel Otero-Iglesias, Senior Analyst, Elcano Royal Institute

I think its very ambitious. It is not even two years. Barnier has announced it will need to be done in 18 months in order to pass it through the European and national parliaments before the 2019 European elections. I see two possible outcomes. Hard Brexit because the negotiations break-down (this would mean that we will see an acrimonious negotiation similar to that of Grexit in 2015) or an agreement between the UK and the 27 to sign a transitional agreement to allow more time to negotiate a new legal framework between the two parties. This will stretch the negotiations for a number of years and if the EU does not desintegrate it is likely that the UK will decide at some point to return to the EU in order to preserve its membership in the single market. As Philip Hammond has stated, no-one in the UK has voted to be poorer.

Kristian SteinnesProfessor, Department of Historical Studies, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

My short answer is that I think it unrealistic to conclude the negotiations in two years.

First, we have the legal battle whether the parliament will have a say as to when and under what conditions the government should trigger article 50.

Secondly, the Commission’s Brexit chief Michel Barnier, has rejected any notion of the U.K. “cherry-picking” the best bits of EU membership. This will be extremely complicated as the UK certainly will seek some kind of accession to the single market. One aspect of this pertains to passporting rules. About 5,500 UK firms rely on corporate “passports” to conduct business across the EU, which certainly will be very important for the City of London (and thus the UK) with its huge financial sector and substantial UK revenues.

Moreover, according to Article 50, MEPs must consent to any deal negotiated between the British government and the European Commission on behalf of the remaining 27 member countries, and viewpoints on Brexit are not unambiguously in the European Parliament.

In addition, Brexit Secretary David Davis has underlined that he is “not really interested” in a transitional deal, which indicates that negotiations will start for real when (and I shall not write if), article 50 is triggered.

These challenges, taken together with the substantial amount of time trade deals normally takes to conclude (for instance the EU-Canada deal or the EU-South Korea deal), indicates that it will in my view make it be extremely hard to conclude a deal within the end of 2018, as suggested by the EU.

Otherwise, my apologies for not having got back to you until now. I have been away. I hope, however, that you find some of these comments useful.

 

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