“Let’s get it done,” says Theresa May, but Brexit difficulties have only just begun, according to Sir Ivan Rogers in a talk in Bath

“Let’s get it done,” Theresa May said about her Brexit deal on March 8th, just days before it was soundly defeated by MPs on 12th March. I’m sure many people wish the European question and Brexit would go away. I certainly do. So much time and energy are being wasted on Brexit when there are many other big issues to address such as huge inequality, low pay and poor working conditions, housing shortages, and above all climate change and the environmental crisis.

At the moment uncertainty reigns – the deal or something similar could be revived and put to parliament once again. So shouldn’t reasonable people view the deal as a necessary compromise which will allow us to move on? Surely it ‘splits the difference’ and offers an opportunity to heal deep wounds.

If only this was possible.

Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK’s ambassador to the EU up to January 2017 when he resigned, gave a fascinating talk arranged by Toppings in Bath on 4th March 2019 in which he dispelled any hopes that Brexit will go away quickly if the deal is agreed. Drawing on insights from many years at the heart of the British government and the EU, distilled in his book 9 Lessons in Brexit, he said, “We’re still nearer the beginning of this process than the end.”

After the referendum in 2016 he warned politicians that the Article 50 negotiations won’t be about a trade deal and the future relationship. They will “solely be about the terms of withdrawal.” But, he said, “No one in the political class wanted to hear this.”

As we appear to be drawing to an end of the Article 50 negotiations this is exactly the situation we face. May’s deal agrees withdrawal terms and sets a direction towards a semi-detached relationship (though it doesn’t exclude the possibility of negotiating a soft Brexit after departure). But huge amounts will be left open for negotiation. As Rogers said, we don’t know whether we’ll end up in the EU’s regulatory orbit or much more distant. Most of the current difficulties in Parliament are about this question. Whatever happens in these highly uncertain times (short of stopping Brexit), those difficulties will not go away. They’ll continue for many years.

The short political declaration about the future relationship mentions many issues but is vague and contradictory. Many important questions would be unanswered including:

• Will the UK be closely aligned to the single market and customs union or not?

• Will tariffs be put on imports from EU countries leading to much higher prices for food and other goods?

• Or will tariffs be reduced across a range of sectors keeping prices down but putting much of the UK’s food and other industries in jeopardy?

• How will the open Irish border be maintained (if the backstop is indeed temporary)?

• How will current pan-European security, policing, and data sharing be maintained?

• What consumer and labour protections, food, health and safety standards will apply in Britain?

• How will Britain contribute to pan-European action against climate change?

• How will the European Structural and Investment Funds, which provide about £2 billion per year for development, be replaced?

• How will the inter-operation and safety of international transport systems be managed?

• How will Britain participate in pan-European research and innovation programmes?

• How will pan-European communications systems, including tariffs for mobile phone use, operate?

I asked Rogers whether all these things will have to be negotiated together as a single package, or whether they could be separated into a series of smaller deals. His answer was that some of it, such as internal security and foreign policy issues, might be separable, but most things will have to be negotiated together.

In fact, he said, EU negotiators will want to keep as much together as possible. The EU will be very aware of diverging interests across the EU, e.g. in financial services, fish, energy, agriculture, and unlikely to finally agree anything until everything is agreed. They’ll be very wary of British attempts to divide and rule. International negotiations of this sort are often held up by the most difficult things and can be prolonged for years.

He stressed that for success, clarity and honesty will be required from the government about the broad objectives and the difficult trade-offs that will be necessary. Lack of clarity and continuing deep divisions within the Cabinet mean Britain will have a weak negotiating position. As he said, “The vast bulk of British effort over the last two years has been negotiating with ourselves – always a fatal error in international negotiations.” If this error continues, the difficulties of reaching a satisfactory final settlement will last for years to come.

So, people might say, let’s get the deal done. Let’s not worry too much about technical details now – we’ll muddle our way through somehow. Unfortunately, this is complacency of the highest order.

It fails to recognise that the huge challenges currently being experienced with Brexit will apply in much the same way after EU departure. Reaching agreement in the short transition period (from 1¾ to 3¾ years – the deal allows for a transition extension of 1 or 2 years) on the future relationship which covers a wide range of very different areas will be extremely difficult.

Ian Bartle