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A timeout is Britain’s best Brexit option

The Financial Times logoThe Financial Times 27/09/2018 Philip Stephens
It should be clear by now that the UK is nowhere near ready to leave the EU © Getty It should be clear by now that the UK is nowhere near ready to leave the EU

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Do not underestimate us. Britain can stand alone. We won the war. Winston Churchill! The Battle of Britain! Dunkirk! Now, give us a bespoke Brexit deal or we will shoot ourselves. Ha! How will you cope if there is no one to buy those expensive German cars and bottles of bubbly Italian wine? There you have it. Six months to “B-day” and this is what the government has to offer by way of an endgame.

There will be more helpless jingoism at the coming Conservative conference. For the Tory party’s English nationalists Brexit is a quest to recover the past. Listen to Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary. More frantic by the minute to oust Theresa May as prime minister, Mr Johnson seems truly to have convinced himself he is Churchill. No one would blink if he tipped up at the conference with homburg and fat cigar.

The Tories are not alone in their delusions. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour has a Brexit policy soaked in cynicism. The party will oppose any deal secured by the government but refuses to set out a credible alternative. It may, or may not, back a second referendum. In truth, Mr Corbyn is as much a prisoner of nostalgia as is Mr Johnson. Imprisoned by the hard left ideology of the 1970s, he views the EU as a capitalist plot against the working class. The pro-European majority among Labour MPs lack the political stomach to challenge him.

Related: Boris Johnson's six-point Brexit plan has no real answers

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The real choices are as they were when Britain invoked Article 50 in March 2017. The only surprise at the Salzburg summit of EU leaders was that Mrs May affected surprise at the rejection of her “Chequers” plan. The EU has been constant. If Britain wants to opt out of the rules of the single market it can have a trade deal. If it wants friction-free access then it can choose something modelled on the European Economic Area, with all the associated obligations. Nothing complicated there.

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The EU27 is ready to offer some special privileges at the edges of a conventional trade deal. Call it “Canada plus”. But Brexit cannot bend the bloc out of shape. The imagined rudeness of Emmanuel Macron, the French president, in Salzburg reflected no more than a restatement of this basic principle.

In any event, talks will get nowhere without agreement on the so-called backstop deal for Ireland — a guarantee in the exit treaty that whatever the future trading relationship it will not impose a “hard” border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. An EEA-type deal would solve much of the problem. “Canada” would be only possible if the border question was settled.

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Such an accord is possible — creative minds have been looking at a “special status” for Northern Ireland which would all but erase the need for controls at any of its borders. Mrs May will scupper a compromise, however, if she holds to the theological view that any oversight of trade between the province and the British mainland would be an affront to sovereignty.

Many of us had thought the referendum decision was as bad as it could get. Britain would pay a heavy price, but with intelligent leadership and a modicum of goodwill something could be salvaged. Such optimism wildly overestimated Mrs May’s government. 

The prime minister’s latest bravado about a no-deal Brexit fits the vainglorious pattern. A cliff-edge departure would create chaos. The government lacks the capacity to repatriate overnight the regulatory and oversight tasks long delegated to the EU. Business would be stranded in a legal no man’s land. Borders would go unpoliced. Britain would depend on the goodwill of the EU27 to avoid economic paralysis.

The bigger risk is that a compromise on Northern Ireland will be accompanied by a declaratory commitment to a Canada-style trade deal. Mrs May would dare the House of Commons to reject it. The outcome of the vote would be uncertain. What is certain is that such an arrangement — in effect severing deep economic ties — would be inimical to Britain’s national interest.

The clock is ticking. The prime minister has wasted two years skidding and swerving in a vain attempt to appease Tory Europhobes. The national interest and the reasonable expectations of other EU states have gone by the board. This absence of leadership has led to the absurd position that Mrs May cannot promise she will secure the backing of the British parliament for any deal.

It should be evident by now that Britain is simply not ready for Brexit. How can the country expect a halfway sensible settlement when its politicians cannot agree among themselves? A commitment to hold a referendum on the terms of a deal would be the best way to answer that question, but the politicians seem even less inclined to hand the issue back to the people.

The only intelligent option that remains is a timeout — a protracted period during which Britain remains in the single market and customs union while its politicians, business community and, hopefully, its citizens reconsider the options. This could take the form of stopping the clock on the Article 50 negotiations, an extension of the planned transition period, or time-limited membership of the EEA with an accompanying customs arrangement.

Such a settlement — for four, and better five, years — would leave Britain worse off than now. But that has always been the unavoidable reality of Brexit. The game should have been about damage-limitation. Instead we have paralysis. Time to call for a timeout.

NOW SEE: A warning from Greece: Brexit Britain sets itself up to learn the hard way

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