Over the weekend, Philip Hammond and Liam Fox co-authored an article in the Sunday Times that was meant to show cabinet unity on the subject of transition from being inside the EU to whatever being outside of it will supposedly be; what the three years, or however long it goes for, that will kick in after March 2019 will substantially look like in macro regulatory terms. Unfortunately, like all these sorts of exercises undertaken these days, it brought to light more questions than it came close to answering.
“We want our economy to remain strong and vibrant through this period of change. That means businesses need to have confidence that there will not be a cliff-edge when we leave the EU in just over twenty months’ time. That is why we believe a time-limited interim period will be important to further our national interest and give business greater certainty – but it cannot be indefinite; it cannot be a back door to staying in the EU. And it must ensure a smooth and predictable pathway for businesses and citizens alike. We are both clear that during this period the UK will be outside the single market and outside the customs union and will be a ‘third-country’ not party to EU treaties.”
Okay, how to begin to break down that paragraph….I will do my best here. The whole point of having a transitional period is that it seems that even the Liam Foxes of this world have come to realise that the “twenty months” remaining in the Article 50 period is not enough to secure a deal that won’t involve a “cliff-edge” situation for British businesses. It also cannot be indefinite (although, notably, Hammond/Fox fail to state how long they think this transition period should or will be); fine, get that. The problem is that the last sentence directly contradicts everything that came before it.
The only way a transitional deal can work and not involve a cliff-edge is if it is off the shelf and relatively similar to what we have now. The only scenarios that tick these boxes all involve staying in the Customs Union and the Single Market during the transition. It’s that simple – there is no way out of this. You either go for a deal that looks like Norway+, you manage to negotiate the deal of the millennium in the time available (which both Hammond and Fox appear to rule out as a possibility), or you end up with no deal whatsoever – in other words, you go off the cliff.
The article from Hammond/Fox is simply another exercise in internal Tory party management; it means nothing other than that. The cabinet seems to collectively hope that the EU Commission will blink first in this game of chicken; scared of Britain’s willingness to go off the cliff, it will bend and give Britain some great transitional deal that is just a mix of everything Britain ideally wants out of its post-Brexit arrangement. Beyond the fact that the Commission will not do this, even if they wanted to it would be impossible: such a deal would take time to iron out, and there isn’t enough of it left. That’s why we’re going for a transitional deal in the first place, remember?
Hammond/Fox are buying time for the government. However, the clock remains ticking.