diamond geezer

 Saturday, June 23, 2018

Two years ago today, the British public voted to leave the European Union.

Two years on, we still have no idea what'll happen when we do.

There will, at some point, come a day when the final outcome becomes clear. But we don't yet know when that day will be, nor is it easy to even guess.

A lot of companies would like to know. Some aren't even hanging around to find out. An unpredictable outcome confirmed on an unscheduled date isn't good for business, making Britain an increasingly unattractive place to invest.

Had David Cameron triggered Article 50 before he resigned, we'd be leaving the EU tomorrow. Nothing so certain happened. Instead Theresa May hung on until the end of March 2017, when she had to press the button to get us out of the European elections next May. And that means we'll be leaving the EU in 40 weeks time, further unexpectedness notwithstanding.

But how far before 29th March 2019 will our final trading state be determined? At one point it was hoped a deal would be on the table in time for the EU Summit later this month. Fat chance. The government might get its act together and find a mutually acceptable solution in the autumn, but I wouldn't hold my breath. The EU say they need a proposition by the end of the year for their constituent nations to vote on, but they might not get it. The day we find out how Brexit ends probably won't be this year.

Parliament will still want a final say, and in January the Speaker might, or might not, let them have it. Or maybe February, the way things are going, given how intractable everything is. Could Tory Remainer rebels swing a final vote, or might Labour's Brexiteer outliers swing it back?

As for international trade, will any final offer coalesce around EEA rules, or Norway Plus, or some other off the shelf economic model. Or might the UK manage to come up with a bespoke compromise which suits both sides? How can anyone square the circle of the Irish border, which mustn't be Hard between north and south, but mustn't be Hard between NI and the mainland either? If we can't even agree a backstop protocol without crossing red lines, what hope is there?

Our Ministerial negotiation team don't always seem the sharpest tools in the box. I wouldn't put it past them to leave the whole thing hanging until the very last minute, either through hotheadeness or as an act of brinksmanship. Imagine getting to the last week of March with nothing yet agreed. It could still happen, indeed pretty much anything could.

We could slip into the so-called transition period with no confirmation of what the end state will be. Transition's currently scheduled to drag on until the end of December 2020, but even that's a moveable feast, and probably just prolongs the indecision even longer. How many businesses might have taken flight by then if, as some claim, even twenty extra months won't be long enough to get all their preparations together?

But the outcome which hangs most heavily over these deliberations is crashing out with no deal whatsoever. All this political game-playing could still end with nobody being willing to compromise, or back down, and every postulated solution coming to naught. That would bring into play the notorious cliff-edge scenario, as we crash out of the EU on WTO terms, and innumerable frictionless agreements abruptly unravel.

I've been nervous about the 'no deal' option ever since Cabinet members started spouting the line that "no deal is better than a bad deal". The definition of a bad deal is wilfully subjective, and could be attached to any marginally imperfect negotiation where the degree of subsidy, or nuance of immigration, or extent of legal jurisdiction, wasn't deemed quite right. It's almost as if we're being softened up for the idea that crashing out of the EU in an unplanned manner would be just fine.

Only two groups of people would be happy after a no deal outcome. One would be the Evangelical Brexiteers, for whom the only thing that matters is that we leave the EU and its constitutional shackles, and absolutely nothing else matters. And the other would be those intent on smashing our current economic structures and remaking society to their own advantage. If the left were in power they'd have plans for unfettered Corbynism on a grand scale, but they're not. Instead we're on track for a super-capitalist state focused on anything-goes trade, in which existing systems would be forced to adapt or break, solely for the benefit of a few opportunists mopping up the wreckage. I genuinely fear a no deal outcome, and it remains very much at the back of the table.

Two years on from the referendum, we continue to exist in a vortex of political and economic uncertainty, our nation's future direction yet to be set.

It seems two years ago we weren't voting for an outcome, we were voting for a headline. Only when the dust finally settles, one unknown day, will we learn what that outcome actually is.


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