Britain Forgot to Ask Europe’s Opinion of a Brexit Transition

A transition deal might be good for Britain, but there are reasons to doubt the EU would agree to it.

British prime minister Theresa May speaks with German chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, July 20, 2016
British prime minister Theresa May speaks with German chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, July 20, 2016 (The Prime Minister’s Office/Tom Evans)

British politicians from the ruling Conservative and the opposition Labour Party agree there needs to be a “transition” between leaving the EU in the spring of 2019 and implementing a post-Brexit trade deal.

During that period, the United Kingdom would formally be out, but the rules of the customs union and the single market would still apply. Imports and exports would be unaffected. British companies would still be able to operate in continental Europe and vice versa. Economic disruption would be minimal.

It sounds great, but the British have forgotten one thing: to ask the remaining 27 member states what they think.

Not optimistic

Anand Menon and Jonathan Portes, both professors at King’s College London, are not optimistic.

They point out in Prospect magazine:

  • The EU’s Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has no mandate to broker a transitional arrangement.
  • The EU has made clear — time and again — that Britain cannot “cherry-pick” the terms of membership. The bloc will not set a precedent where a country has the sweet (the single market) without the bitter (paying into the EU budget, respecting EU judicial decisions).
  • Since a transitional deal would need to be approved by at least a qualified majority in the European Council as well as a majority in the European Parliament, there will be every incentive for countries to drag their feet if they think it is in their interest.
  • EU countries can already see that uncertainty over what will happen in 2019 is influencing the decisions of multinationals. Companies are moving offices and jobs across the Channel. Why should they do anything that discourages this?

Tragedy

Menon and Portes conclude, “Perhaps we should have talked to the EU before launching a debate about transition among ourselves?”

That is the tragedy of the whole Brexit debate in the United Kingdom. Seldom do the views and interests of the rest of Europe factor into it, which raises unrealistic expectations like a smooth transition.