With the triggering of Article 50, Britain is exposed properly for the first time to the demands of other countries which will determine the final shape of Brexit but which it cannot control. It’s also a year of European elections, at least one of which could overturn the European project as we know it. With demands for a second Scottish independence referendum now on the table, politics is about to come crashing in on what it has suited Britain to portray as a technocratic exercise, just as that was making good progress.
In the nine months since the Brexit vote, Britain’s preparations have come a considerable way. The government first set up the Department for Exiting the EU (DexEU, as it’s called in the Whitehall jargon), and the Department for International Trade; departments then began describing the impact of Brexit, pouring this detail into DexEU, which funnelled it to No.10. Some areas are immensely affected – the Home Office, dealing with immigration, Customs and Excise, and everything to do with agriculture and fisheries – but frustratingly for the departments, this has largely been a one-way flow of information. The prime minister’s team has kept views on anything that might be a negotiating point to themselves.
Early in the year, the prime minister ruled out membership of the single market and probably membership of the customs union. That was not what many Remainers (and many businesses) wanted, but it clarified the picture.
Departments are now more focused on the implementation of Brexit, identifying steps that Britain will have to take to avoid a ‘cliff edge’ 731 days after Article 50 is triggered. Inevitably, though, some of these (such as the treatment of visitors to Britain at the borders) depend on the deal that Britain secures — or fails to secure — and serious work cannot begin until that is known. If there is a single refrain emerging it is that the work can all technically be done – but not in the two years allowed under Article 50. There is a sudden talk about an “implementation period” for extending the status quo until new arrangements are in place.
This might seem like a British euphemism, avoiding a blunt demand for more time from the 27 remaining EU governments which might equally bluntly be rejected. There are signs of recognition from some EU governments of the need, though, and Michel Barnier, the EU’s negotiator on Brexit, has used the phrase, although his interpretation remains to be tested.
This, though, is simply a subset of the greater problem now confronting Theresa May and her ministers: their preparation of the British position is about to come up against the reality of a European response. The British government has done work on the consequences if Britain simply walked out, refusing to accept, say, the demand for a large “exit fee”. But few except hardline Brexiteers are keen on that; businesses say that trade tariffs are the least of their worries compared to the uncertainty of licensing and jurisdiction that would follow.
And Brexit has potent rivals as a source of intense European concern. The Dutch election campaign showed the strength of anti-immigration feeling, even though the anti-EU, anti-Islam candidate Geert Wilders eventually came in second, and the German elections could see the end of Angela Merkel’s tenure as chancellor. That might inject uncertainty into Germany’s willingness to prop up the eurozone, although it is hard to see it profoundly changing Germany’s commitment to the European project. But even if the chance is small, the prospect of a victory by Marine le Pen in France’s elections could do just that.
And that is before grappling with Nicola Sturgeon’s new challenge on Scottish independence – or with any response that a volatile incumbent in the White House might make to world crises. The past nine months of analysing how Britain might handle the technicalities of Brexit may seem in retrospect like an enviable period of calm.
Bronwen Maddox is director of the Institute for Government and a commentator and broadcaster