Making a meal of it

If Article 50’s triggering meant “Now We’re Cooking!” then the menu certainly isn’t a smorgasbord. While the exit deal will be complicated, it will use more basic ingredients than everything that’s been stirring in the UK political cauldron. It is supposed to do no more than fill the gaps left by giving up the treaties on financial, legal, territorial and institutional obligations.

There will need to be arrangements in a number of areas including Pan-European projects; international commitments; commercial contracts under EU law; pending European court cases; UK’s Cyprus base, Gibraltar and Northern Ireland; Britain’s EU officials, MEPs and court judges; and regulatory bodies, which alone provide much for the UK to digest.

As advertised, the first serving is citizens’ rights and the only item to really fight over, the budget settlement (the final bill). Trade will come later because, as my Nan always said, “You can’t have pudding if you don’t eat your greens.”

Also, trade will be separate because such deals are for non-EU countries, come under a different treaty basis and are agreed unanimously, unlike Article 50’s majority vote.

The complexity, including UK ambitions and WTO processes, always meant that instead of completion in 2019 this will be one of several later deals bridged by some transitional arrangements. These could include foreign policy/security cooperation, and shared markets for energy, transport etc.

The Article 50 withdrawal agreement won’t set out the future UK-EU relationship, though it will be guided by a “framework” for that. Even so, allowing time for voting on the final deal, they have under 12 months of actual working days to prepare it after the EU agrees objectives (expected in May), not counting holidays and weekends.

This all means three possible dishes: an exit deal only; an exit deal plus an accord on key future partnership issues; or no deal. The first is possible and the second challenging. The UK government admitted that it has done no impact assessment on the third even though it would be messy, leaving people and businesses with just legal crumbs to use if court cases arise. Inevitably the UK needs some deal or else much of what follows, including trade, will be put at risk.

Having set the timer the UK is in the pressure cooker. It needs to manage the British public’s expectations, as well as all EU 27 cooks (who are actually head chefs) and mainly, the Westminster parliament, which must authorise the UK’s EU withdrawal. The exit deal will also require some separate bills, besides the Great Repeal Bill (on which a white paper was published 30 March, giving us - and lawyers - more to chew on).

Therefore, the government should heed the old cookery adage: “First catch your hare.” In other words, plan to deliver with only what you’ve got to use. Hopefully, the EU comes to the table united around the same approach, or it’ll be thin gruel all round.

The writer is a former EU policy advisor to the UK Government and also chaired the EU Employment Committee.