There’s no rush to invoke Article 50

I am optimistic as we head back from the summer holidays, but this optimism is tarnished by the continuing noise in the country following the EU referendum result in June. Whichever way one looks, and right or wrong, there is concern about the future prospects for the UK and the fact that it is fast looking like a diminished nation.

I know many people have shaken their heads and are carrying on as usual particularly as any departure from the EU will not be for at least 2-3 years. This is understandable and is a fact of life however you voted. But there is something dissonant about the crowing from our Right wing press as they Brexwash every piece of positive economic news and about seeing the political Right cavorting with glee around the House of Commons as they relish the victory of a campaign that exaggerated fears and mistrust of outsiders. Isn’t it eerily wrong that our elected “leaders” are ignoring the views of almost all experts, the warnings from international Governments and the fact that Sterling has devalued by 10-15%, treating these significant facts as problems for another day?

It’s that other day that is the big one looming on the horizon, the day when the Prime Minister invokes Article 50. The day when the UK commits to a 2 year timetable to leave the European Union and give up the organisation that has given Europe six decades of peace and continuity. Despite the calls and legal challenges for the Government to follow due process and put such a significant Constitutional decision to a vote in Parliament, this too is being ignored.

Even in this time of supposed honeymoon, the splits in the Government are already yawning on the issue. The three Brexiteers, without any clear plan or alternative for the future, are pushed by the Right (some in Parliament, some now on the road with Donald Trump) who are demanding that Article 50 is invoked immediately. There is already a palpable whiff of panic. The Hard Exit they desire so quickly appears a termination point in itself driven by a backward-looking ideology searching for the elusive “sunlit uplands” of a Britain theirs to control and laud over.

And the right wingers are right to panic even if the real debate about Brexit is beginning now. The notion of a Soft “Exit” is so compelling and logical, and in the embers there is a hope that it is being supported by a canny Prime Minister, showing strong leadership and mettle, backed by a pragmatic and clever new Chancellor. Brexit means Brexit but let’s just see if we can’t negotiate some control on immigration, continued access to the single market and a looser Europe that redefines the notion of Federalism and gives us even more control than we had. Let’s acknowledge that a Hard Exit from the EU will mean the City of London, the driver of the UK’s economic fortune, quietly losing its significant global advantage and over time seeing it drift away from the UK followed closely by those companies that have employed tens of thousands and used the UK as a flexible doorway to 500 million consumers in the EU and beyond. 

And so, why can’t we just wait for a while before we commit to an exit? Let’s see if Trump is elected in the US this year and whether we need to adjust our position on the back of the volatility that would ensue. Why not wait until we see the outcome of the Dutch, French and German elections in 2017 to see whether their outcome changes the landscape and gives us clearer leverage to negotiate a better deal for the UK inside a reformed and renewed EU?

But the logic of this remains hidden, on purpose. While the Government has ruled out invoking Article 50 until at least the start of next year it is looking more and more likely that it will be invoked in the first quarter of 2017. Commentators say that a two year negotiation will mean that the UK can exit the EU by mid-2019, allowing time for any economic fall out to have passed before the next General Election in May 2020. Politically this will mean that the Government will have delivered on its promise – and they will hope that many of the 17 million Leavers will nod their heads and duly vote Tory.

The uncertainty of the EU referendum will not pass easily whatever anyone says or does now. In fact uncertainty will only become more intense through the two years of negotiation. Some say that the UK can reverse the Leave decision at any time even after Article 50 has been triggered, though this is questionable and not legally proven. And there is the ever present risk that the negotiations don’t complete leading to either an extension of negotiations, if all 27 remaining EU countries happen to agree, or a Constitutional impasse. Worst would be that the UK is offered a take it or leave it deal we cannot accept and we are simply cut out of the EU at the end of the two years, leaving the country scrabbling to reapply to the EU de novo from a very weak position.

The appeal of biding our time allows the UK to manage the shock of the many major political events that will occur over the next 12 months and to see how the European and US landscape lies. It will allow the experts in the country more time to agree the best possible plan for an exit if that is indeed what we choose to proceed with. And, if in the autumn of 2017 it becomes apparent that it is in the country’s best interest to begin to negotiate some sort of exit, then the two year clock can start ticking and we can still complete our departure before the General Election in May 2020.  

So I propose we wait and see, allowing us the control to invoke Article 50 in autumn 2017 at the earliest. One more year of reflection and hard-nosed planning will do us no further harm. It could also give more time for logic to prevail.

Simon Whitehead

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search