Brexit weekly: 5 things

Brexit purgatory

The medieval Catholic Church used to be big on the concept of purgatory. It was the stage between heaven and hell that you resided in at the culmination of your own personal Article 50 process (i.e. when you’d died). How long you’d be in purgatory depended, but you could spend more with the Church to speed your way along to heaven.

And so purgatory seems a much better description of the ‘transition period’ between the UK formally leaving the EU and beginning to adopt its own rules, seek new trade deals etc., not least because it is at least a name both sides can agree on: the UK prefers to refer to this period as ‘implementation period’. Both sides seem a bit unsure as to how long it’ll last too, with the EU this week suggesting in its new guidelines for the next phase of Brexit talks that the period could end at the end of 2020. The British have, on the other hand, spoken vaguely of the period lasting two years or so.

Why is purgatory important? Because it allows businesses time to adjust to new rules, or at least plan on how to adjust. It allows teething issues that may affect the future relationship between the EU and UK to be ironed out. And it softens the likely dramatic impact of the UK moving immediately from one settled regulatory regime to another, uncertain one.

But it also means that the UK will have to continue to follow EU rules (with no say in their making) for X number of years more. ECJ judgements will continue to apply for even more months. And will Britain even be able to go out into the world and strike those new trade deals Liam Fox has been beavering away on?

Brexiteers, who have been remarkably relaxed about Government concessions to Brussels so far, hate the idea of a transition – sorry, implementation – period, even if some see its necessity. So, if Brussels proposes limiting the length of purgatory then all the better: this maybe the first EU decision that the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg find themselves agreeing with.

A Cabinet of curiosities

Good news: the Cabinet started discussing what sort of Brexit they want this week. Now, you may think that this should be news from December 2016 or even December 2015 but in fairness all the various Ministers have been very busy, Brexit has probably been under AOB for months and who wants to be that person that extends an already lengthy meeting by actually discussing the AOB items?

To be fair to Theresa May, in some respects it’s not entirely necessary to have a long discussion to find out what, say, Boris Johnson wants from Brexit (Theresa May’s job). As all of us know, putting off a difficult conversation can make life easier for everybody involved.

And yet and yet. At some point trade-offs will have to be confronted. Choices will have to be made. It is frankly unlikely that starting this discussion eighteen months ago will have done anything but poison further already slightly testy relationships. But, again as we all know, putting off a tricky discussion sometimes just makes things worse.

The end of the beginning

The EU Withdrawal Bill has finally completed the Committee Stage in the Commons, eight days and around sixty-four hours after it began. Like other much-hyped but overly long epics, it was actually a bit of a damp squib. The Government lost one vote, allowing Parliament to gain a ‘meaningful’ say on the final Brexit deal that may not mean too much. Of course, it lost only that one vote by giving in every other time it faced a rebellion but still, this Committee Stage failed to match the Parliamentary drama of, say, the votes over the Maastricht Treaty in 1993.

But, a little like the Lord of the Rings, it’s still not over. The Bill has to get through its Report and Third Reading in the Commons, which should be fairly straightforward. It will not be so easy in the Lords, which has a large pro-Remain majority and little time for tabloid bullying. Something for Ministers to look forward to over Christmas.

Food for thought

Ah yes, Christmas. A time for reflection, for spending time with your family and for eating far, far too much. So, the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee session on trade in food this week with Michael Gove, the Secretary of State, and George Eustice, his junior minister in charge of food, Brexiteers both, was well timed.

Food policy is a fascinating case study for the impact of Brexit. Virtually all food law is made in Brussels, so theoretically there’s a lot of scope for the UK to take back control. Some food legislation is unnecessary and burdensome, so there’s scope there for imaginative ways of revising regulation too. But food safety and food quality are fundamental concerns for consumers and here the EU’s record is pretty good.

Consumer preferences are also often strongly-held and impervious to logic. But what gives post-Brexit? Is it the EU food safety regime that goes, with the UK abandoning broad shadowing of European legislation; or do trade deals with third country blocs (like, say, the US) founder because food isn’t included? Difficult questions for Mr Gove and Mr Eustice.

A year to remember

This is the final 5 Things for 2017 – I know. It’s especially sad because, when you’re writing a Brexit-related list of five interesting things each week, it’s really helpful if there’s a lot of Brexit-related things happening.

2017 has certainty delivered the drama, if only the merest hints as to what Brexit will finally look like. And 2018? Who knows – but thank you for reading so far and from all of us here at Project Brexit best wishes for a merry Christmas and happy New Year.


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