brexit view

The hardest season

The transition from spring's "no deal" threats to the August burst of UK government papers shows that future relationship talks are crucial for the UK. That second phase will not start if EU leaders decide on 19-20 October that there's insufficient progress under Article 50, although they can also change the negotiating guidelines. Before then, there’ll be more papers and more gaps on citizen rights will narrow. The principles, not cost, of the “divorce bill” produced a row but largely for some newspapers’ benefit and the “go whistle” line has been dropped. Northern Ireland issues (on which there’s no EU position paper yet) could prove more problematic.

The UK is tying Northern Ireland to the future EU relationship because it wants to leave the customs union, thus requiring border checks which the peace agreement removed. The government’s proposed solution of a magical new customs union - not the EU one but just like it - may be revised.

The UK’s management of the current system alone can be patchy and after just two weeks the government dropped its idea of electronically tagging goods. It is a complex conundrum they’ve created for themselves, so why not settle Northern Ireland first and let that dictate customs arrangements etc? Why risk a historic relationship by chasing the dream of non-EU trade deals?

This looks particularly pointless when the government wants to simply copy EU agreements that it’ll lose, covering 30 per cent of UK trade. Those other countries will wait until the EU relationship is clear, and if any renegotiate, then the future benefits are speculative - although the theory says that their value won’t match EU trade. Moreover, their price could be market deregulation, weakening UK sovereignty and threatening any EU trade terms on standards for goods.

In contrast, the government compromised on the European court (ECJ), albeit disguised by referring to ending “direct jurisdiction”, which arguably the ECJ doesn’t have now.

They are also open to the legal model used by Norway and others, except that only makes sense if the UK stops withdrawal from the European Economic Area and, long term, would mean being a rule-taker not maker.

Beyond Brussels, they could be forced into more concessions inside Westminster during parliamentary votes on legislation to prepare for a Brexit which the government has still not defined.

It admits in some papers to the EU that it is still working on options and in the key Repeal Bill it is asking MPs to give ministers the power (temporarily) to decide the EU deal on their own. That is asking a lot with a thin majority that includes pro-EU Conservatives, and when Labour (if it is united) has softened its stance on the single market to focus opposition. After the summer lull, the way all this is adding up recalls a poetic line that autumn is the hardest season.

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