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Destination Brexit

Last year Portland blazed a trail with our publication Britain votes leave: what happens next?

In the heat of the referendum, there was endless analysis of the effectiveness of the campaigns, who was up and who was down, and what it all meant for the leadership of the Conservative Party.

Scant attention was paid to what would actually happen if the UK woke up to a Leave vote on 24 June and how the Brexit process would unfold.

In this vacuum, Portland brought together a series of leading figures from all sides in the debate to put aside the campaign rhetoric and think about exactly that.

Eight months on, we bring you Destination Brexit. Since the vote, there has been a huge amount of speculation, varied interpretations of what the vote to leave means, and continued clashes between former Remain and Leave campaigners over the form that Brexit should take.

There have been very few real developments in the Brexit process itself. The UK is still a member of the EU. We are trading on exactly the same terms as before. Negotiations have not started. We don’t yet know how the EU will react to the UK’s demands.

All that changes in 2017 – the year Brexit gets real. Article 50 will soon be triggered. The clock will start ticking on the two year time limit for a deal.

The UK and EU will reveal their hands. Red lines, points of swift agreement and areas of particular tension will emerge.

This process can, and will, be disrupted by external developments – elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands; potential parliamentary interference in Theresa May’s plans to trigger Article 50; and random events which are impossible to predict and have unknowable consequences for Brexit.

We do now have greater clarity on the UK’s negotiating position following Theresa May’s speech on 17 January. She has made clear the UK will no longer be a member of the single market, ending free movement and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. She also indicated the UK is prepared to leave the customs union, enabling the new Department for International Trade to reach trade deals with the US, New Zealand, Australia and other non-EU countries. From that position, the Prime Minister will seek to agree the ‘best possible’ trading relationship with the EU.

Brexit will also bleed into the domestic agenda in the UK. Number 10 have suggested they do not see Brexit as an end in itself, but a catalyst for fundamental and far-reaching change at home. They will need to fulfil their promise to build ‘a country that works for everyone’ and show it is not simply rhetoric.

The EU has shown in the past that it is prepared to put the survival of its political project ahead of purely economic considerations. So the extent to which the UK’s goals survive in reality, as the EU makes clear their price, remains to be seen.

Our distinguished array of contributors apply their formidable collective brainpower to these issues.

First, former Justice Secretary and Co-Convener of the Vote Leave campaign, Michael Gove, outlines how the Government should take Brexit negotiations forward. Control of borders, leaving the single market and customs union, and ending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice must all be delivered. In his vision, the UK should go for a clean, quick Brexit and embrace the opportunities that it brings.

“That was the platform, those were the pledges we campaigned in front of, that was what was on the bus.” Michael Gove

Next, Radek Sikorski, Poland’s former Foreign Minister and member of Portland’s Advisory Council, believes the UK will have to think differently about the EU if negotiations are to be successful. So far, UK ministers have engaged in an internal debate about their preferred outcome – but they will soon need to understand and engage with the EU’s multiple and conflicting interests. He suggests ministers may be shocked by the reaction they receive.

The international context for negotiating trade deals is outlined by Sir Andrew Cahn, former CEO of UK Trade and Investment. He argues that growing protectionism and anti-globalisation sentiment make it a bad time to seek trade deals, so negotiating a deal with the EU should be the UK’s highest priority. He believes a transitional arrangement is inevitable, but also fears emotion will cloud the judgment of negotiators on both sides.

Former Cabinet Minister and member of Portland’s Advisory Council, Michael Portillo, then sets out his belief that, although the UK was right to vote to leave, the British state was woefully unprepared to deal with the referendum outcome. He predicts that once Article 50 is triggered, two years of fruitless negotiations between UK and EU officials will proceed, only to be resolved through a political deal at the last minute.

“The decision to leave the European Union is the bravest act of the British people since World War Two.” Michael Portillo

Sir Stephen Wall, Portland’s Chief Adviser on Europe and the UK’s former Ambassador to the EU, makes the case that both the UK and EU have been diminished by Brexit. He argues that the UK has lost its voice at the table and influence over key policy areas, while the EU has lost its most passionate advocate for free and open markets. A series of elections next year in major EU economies could have major consequences for Brexit, he says.

Finally, Labour MP and former Chair of Vote Leave, Gisela Stuart, explains how her new organisation Change Britain has found that voters want the Government to get on with leaving the EU and the single market. Ending freedom of movement and introducing an immigration system that does not discriminate between EU and non-EU migrants are, she argues, post-Brexit priorities.

Suffice to say, there is much to play for in 2017.

Victoria Dean is Partner and Head of Portland’s Brexit Unit. Previously Head of the Foreign Office’s European directorate, Dean spent the summer on the Government’s Brexit preparations.

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