By Michael Brophy
There is only one certainty now that Theresa May has finally triggered Article 50 putting the rest of Europe on two year’s notice that the UK will be pulling out of its Union after 44 years.
That certainty is there is no certainty.
There are 28 members of the European Union; 27 are staying, one is leaving. Among the 28 there is no real general agreement on how exactly Brexit will finally develop.
There are three principal Brussels institutions, the Parliament, the Commission and the Council and there is no real agreement amongst them on how Brexit will fall.
There is one British institution, Westminster, which is riven with Brexit conflict.
And that’s all before Scotland is reckoned with.
London has been stressing that it is confident it can do a deal which will satisfy its Government, fulfil its exit demands and keep the Eurosceptics of the Tory party happy. Not everybody in Brussels agrees.
While there are deals that can and will be done around many aspects of current EU structures, there are very many issues which have the capacity to drive deep divisions between the negotiators making a final Brexit deal difficult, contentious and, in some sectors, probably impossible.
The extent of this difficulty was highlighted recently by an advisor to German chancellor Angel Merkel.
Advantages of membership
“Britain is leaving the European Union and has expressed a belief that after exiting it will have all the advantages of membership”, he pointed out. “This is not going to happen. There are three things that can happen. After exiting, the position of the UK in relation to Europe will either be the same, better than it is at the moment or worse than it is at the moment. Nobody in Europe believes that it can be the same or better. There is absolutely no doubt that it will be worse”.
Again there is no certainty that this will be so. And this is not the way that London views the future.
Since last June when the British public narrowly voted to exit the European Union, millions of words have described the process, the talks, the possible effects without conclusively fitting all the pieces of the jigsaw together. Europe prides itself on the resilience of its structures, its institutions and its processes. Now, however, Brussels finds itself in the unusual role of not being able to predict the future with any degree of confidence.
London’s most critical target in the talks which will begin in less than three months’ time is to agree a new trade deal which give it most, if not all, of the advantages of Union membership and all within two years. The UK Government sees a deal which will allow it trade without tariffs with all its former European associates.
The wise money in Europe suggests that this is not going to happen. A Trade deal recently signed with Canada took all of seven years to negotiate. It is therefore unrealistic to even suggest that a trade deal can be organised between the UK and its former partners by the time Britain leaves Europe in March 2019.
The only option now emerging is a transitional phase allowing the UK to trade freely with its former partners while negotiations continue to establish a lasting trade deal between the two sides. Brussels sees no reason why this should happen without a British concession on freedom of movement across the EU, one of the principal reasons that the UK is pulling out of Europe. So the obvious concession is a temporary visa arrangement for entry by European citizens into the UK. But will Theresa May, given the intensity of the immigration debate, be able to agree to this.
Uncertainty piled upon uncertainty.
This fog of indecision, lack of clarity and the complete failure by London or Brussels to provide a clear picture of the structure of the European landscape just two years hence is not a political play or the establishment of negotiating positions. It is exactly what it looks like. Nobody who is either involved in the Brexit process, advising on it or assuming the role of commentator or analyst has an irrefutable vision of Europe without Britain.
And we shouldn’t expect either Theresa May or Jean-Claude Junker to shine any further light into the darkness over the next weeks or months. What will emerge, eventually, is a Europe shaped by old-fashioned political compromise and a Britain shaped by divisions on Europe which have existed within the Conservative party for nearly half a century.
With analysts and commentators across Europe suggesting that a full Brexit agreement could take anything from two to ten years, certainty is not a feature that is apparent in the early days of the biggest political and economic upheaval Europe has experienced since the establishment of the European Economic Community.
What should worry all Europeans is what will happen if the questions which cannot be answered today, continue to have no answers is two, five or ten years’ time.
For many decades now the nations of the European Union have come to depend on the trading, social and legal structures which flow out of the Brussels institutions. Fishermen share the seas in a carefully orchestrated plan that allows them to thrive and guarantees them future stocks.
Beef producers in each nation have found ready markets particularly in the UK with its huge consumer population. Farmers have been brought back from the edge of extinction and a reliable and sustainable food supply chain has been established.
Science and medicine has seen huge progress in disease control and the emergence of new medicines from pan-European research programmes. Industry and commerce has been able to sell its goods to markets thousands of miles away as well as to the person next door.
Workers have brought their skills to markets which need them and British workers have benefited greatly from European-led reform on their rights and conditions. London’s Financial Services sector has become the world’s largest trading platform enjoying free access to every European market.
There are no answers yet as to how these sectors will fare after Brexit. And that uncertainty is replicated right across every aspect of European living and its intricate relationship with the UK.
There are also no answers yet on whether Ireland can continue its hand-in-glove trade and business existence with Britain.
One thing is certain. There will be uncertainty within Europe for quite a while.
Michael Brophy is chairman of Hume Brophy