Amid all the sound and fury of conflicting opinions about Britain’s future relationship with Europe, one startling fact stands out: Brexit is going nowhere. Secretary of State for Exiting the EU Davis has not attended a single meeting in Brussels this year. There are no negotiations going on about the transition period or the future trade relationship because the exit agreement, which must come first, has stalled on the difficult issue of the Irish border. Draft heads of agreement were exchanged between London and Brussels in December 2017 but Sec Davis disowned these terms within 24 hours of the agreement in principle. He subsequently backtracked his backtracking and the issue was generally assumed to have been resolved. In fact it was parked by HMG, in the hope some magical solution would be found and nothing was resolved, as is now obvious.
There is no agreement on the Irish border issue, post Brexit, which can be spelled out in a legally binding text. The EU issued a draft text in line with the terms agreed in December recently, for considered by the member states. The UK government instantly disowned this proposal but has declined to put forward an alternative proposal of its own. This impasse means there is now no realistic possibility of an exit agreement being signed at the March EU summit, when this was supposed to happen. Failure to conclude an exit deal means there can be no agreement about a transition period and no talks about a longer term relationship.
Meanwhile in London, government plans to move the next stage of Brexit legislation have been postponed because of a threatened rebellion by Tory MP’s. The House of Lords is also making difficulties with numerous amendments to the EU exit bill being debated, and hundreds more under consideration. As if all that wasn’t enough to give Mrs Mayhem a headache, the Home Office is struggling to define a workable system for registration of EU citizens in the UK after Brexit. A complex set of proposals has been circulating but there are several fundamental problems, most notably how to identify eligible EU citizens when they apply for work, NHS treatment or when signing rental agreements. The only realistic way of dealing with this is an ID card system which has been considered in the past, by the Blair government, but was shot shown largely at the behest of libertarian Tories, notably the same Sec Davis who now sees no point in going to Brussels to negotiate.
There is a long list of other issues backed up, not even being considered by ministers at present, because of lack of time and resources. Prominent items include the need for a replacement for the open skies agreement, governing air transport, of which Britain will no longer be a member after Brexit. Also on the list are international agreements relating to membership of the World Trade Organisation, international nuclear safety, regulation of design rights, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, shipping , data protection, environmental controls and at least a hundred other issues. The fact is HM government is already overburdened by a massive Brexit workload and cannot take on any more legislation or international negotiations.
All the agreements and negotiations mentioned above would have to be signed, sealed and delivered by March 29th 2019 if Britain is to exit the EU in good order. There is not the slightest chance of this happening. The option of leaving the EU with no deal has also evaporated because Britain simply can’t put all the necessary agreements in place with the WTO, open skies, nuclear safety bodies etc, in the limited time left.
In plain English Brexit has ground to a halt and there is no prospect of it moving forward for a very long time. The most sensible move would be for Mrs Mayhem to ‘fess-up at the next EU council meeting and ask the other EU governments to agree to an extension of the Article 50 timeline. That would preserve Britain’s current rights and privileges and allow time for proper consideration of the massive backlog of issues. This will not be easy but it is clearly what the national interest demands. Even the arch Brexit zealot Rees-Mogg said as much in an exchange with Sec Davis at a committee hearing, in parliament recently.
The government is trapped by its own statements and commitments, to deliver a frictionless transition to the brave new world of Brexit. None of this is possible but the government dare not say so in public without serious loss of credibility with its core supporters. The search is now on for a credible means of pinning the blame on someone, Juncker, Merkel, Macron, Varadkar, Corbyn, anyone. Attacking these people is hardly a good plan, however, as most of them will eventually be asked to show considerable goodwill to help Britain through this mess of its own making. Attacking your rescuers is never a good idea when you’re stuck in the mud and lack the honesty or humility to admit it.