29th January 2020
As Winston Churchill might have said “ It is, perhaps, the end of the beginning”.
On Friday , at 11.pm , The United Kingdom will, following approval by the European Parliament, leave the European Union. There will then follow eleven months of intense negotiation during the “ transition period” in order to work out the precise trading terms upon which we will complete the leaving process on 31st December 2020 and the basis of our future relationship with the remaining twenty- seven countries of the EU.
Nobody should be in any doubt that this, the real process of leaving, will be fraught with difficulty and danger for both the UK and the EU.
On the credit side we start with a level playing field and from a position of alignment. That should mean that we do not need to engage in the kind of tortuous agreements about a plethora of different standards that so delayed the EU treaty with Canada. Much groundwork has also been covered in the political arrangements already negotiated by Theresa May and again this should form the basis of a final settlement.
On the debit side there are sticking points over items such as fishing rights , for instance, that are likely to prove intractable. Led by the French, the EU is seeking a further twenty- five years of access to our waters for their fishing fleets while the United Kingdom is offering a grace period of just one year. It is hard to see how that circle can readily be squared and there other significant sectors such as the automotive industries in which agreement will probably to be very hard to achieve.
Perhaps of greater importance, and matters that received scant public attention during the referendum campaign or since, are security and the environment. The safety of our nations and a key weapon in the fight against terrorism and cyber warfare has been the exchange of intelligence. It is to the mutual advantage of all that our security services work in close harmony and we have to hope and believe that that cooperation will continue post- Brexit because if it does not then there will soon emerge gaps in our defences that those who wish us ill will be swift to exploit.
Equally, the battle against Global warming can not be won in these islands acting in isolation. Only a Europe- wide approach is likely to influence the United States, China and Russia to an extent that may lead to further international measures to save the planet for our grandchildren before it is too late. Parochial self- interest on behalf of individual states of the EU or the UK can only damage that influence but will common sense and the greater good be allowed to prevail when bureaucrats get down to squabbling over the fine print of the ultimate withdrawal agreements?
We shall know, probably by about mid- summer, whether we are on track to secure the deals that I believe most people wish for or whether we shall, at this year’s end, finally crash out of the European
Union with no deal at all. The Withdrawal Agreement Act, as it now is, leaves no wriggle room for further protracted negotiation. That may concentrate minds, as is the intention, on both sides of the negotiating table, but it may also lead to the law of unintended consequences and untidy loose ends that we could spend years trying to unravel.
With or without eleven “ bongs” ( and interesting that the hard Brexiteers are so keen to ‘ celebrate’ midnight European time!) Friday night will mark a milestone along the path of the history of this United Kingdom. We then have to exert ourselves to remain united , to mitigate the difficulties and to make the most of the opportunities that lie ahead .