The Financial Times (£) says it all in the editorial quoted at some length below – or most of it.
If Theresa May had introduced a simple bill granting MPs a vote on Article 50, the November High Court case and the appeal to the Supreme Court would not have happened.
What it doesn’t say is that the UK government look like triggering Article 50 before the end of March to leave the single market and the customs union. They will argue for s0me entry control for the families of EU workers. In return they will offer no tariffs for EU imports and renewed defence and security pacts. Then the fun will start – the negotiations to preserve the UK as the bridge to Europe for foreign investment including role of the City. They will hope there will be enough in the overall package to keep the Scots from rebelling and act as an opening hand for an Irish deal.
There is an obvious dilemma over membership of the customs union. Retaining it would tie their hands in negotiating trade deals with new foreign partners but would facilitate trade with EU members and an open Irish border. This seems to be the most open question in Brexit policy at the moment.
Charles Grant the director of the Centre for European Reform and one of the best informed commentators sharply critiques the wider British position and offers sage advice for the hand the government ought to play.
Theresa May’s government is heading for the hardest of hard Brexits. That’s what many European officials now believe. In several capitals they have told me that – partly based on their reading of British newspapers – they think May is being pushed by the right of her party towards a deal that will achieve maximum sovereignty for Britain and do maximum damage to its economy
Given such a weak hand, what can May hope to achieve? Staying in the single market is impossible, since she rejects free movement and the authority of the European court of justice (ECJ). Her best bet is to aim for a free trade agreement (FTA) (FTA) that provides zero tariffs on goods, plus some access to EU services markets.
May would also impress the 27 if she aimed for a high level of economic integration. She should make a clear commitment to a transitional deal to cover the several years that will elapse between Britain leaving the EU and the entry into force of an FTA. Businesses and financial firms are desperate for arrangements that could allow them a period in the customs union and parts of the single market while they consider their plans. May’s problem is that the EU’s price for the transition period will be politically unpalatable: free movement, ECJ rulings and budget payments.
But the case for remaining in the customs union is strong: many fewer bureaucratic delays and barriers at the UK-EU border, and minimal disruption of integrated supply chains (crucial for industries like cars and aerospace). Staying would also make it easier to avoid restoring controls on Northern Ireland’s border with Ireland. May should offer money for the funds that support the development of poorer EU members. Encouragingly, Brexit secretary David Davis has not ruled this out. If Britain made such payments – as Switzerland and Norway do – it would spur the EU to offer a more generous FTA.
The details of how Britain restricts free movement are important. If May offers a less stringent regime to EU citizens than to those from other nations – a policy backed by some of her ministers – she will earn goodwill.
From the Financial Times editorial
The judges are hearing the case because of the government’s opaque handling of Brexit. If Theresa May had introduced a simple bill granting MPs a vote on Article 50, the November High Court case and the appeal to the Supreme Court would not have happened. The prime minister is right that too much time has been spent debating the process of Brexit. But it is her strategy that means more has not been said on what it will look like.
The distractions, however, are not restricted to the Supreme Court. Across the road in the House of Commons, the opposition Labour party tabled a motion on Wednesday to force the government to lay out its plan for Brexit. It was an attempt to politically outmanoeuvre Mrs May. As things turned out, the vote had minimal impact on the government’s strategy.
The main lesson of the Supreme Court case and the Commons debacle is about how not to deal with Brexit. As Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, said, the negotiations will be a complex and politically sensitive process. Further complications resulting from obfuscation and parliamentary jousting will further hinder progress. If the government had been clear and honest about its Brexit strategy from the start, these complications could have been avoided.
The government has, so far, offered general statements about the need to curtail immigration, vague suggestions about the prospect of continued payments into the EU budget and hints that the UK will not remain in the single market. What it should do is publish a white paper outlining its objectives in its Brexit talks. This need not weaken the government’s negotiating hand. The direction of travel will, however, offer more certainty to business and to parliament.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London