The countdown to Brexit begins

On 29 March, Prime Minister Theresa May will trigger Article 50 by officially notifying the European Council of the UK’s intention to leave the European Union. This will set in train a two-year negotiation process. By April 2019, Britain should be out. As May made clear in a speech in January, the government’s “starting point in negotiations” will be to stop EU citizens from freely entering Britain, says John Curtice in The Times.

While acknowledging that this means the UK cannot continue to be a member of the single market, it still wants to secure an “ambitious and comprehensive free-trade agreement”.  This is what most voters appear to want, too. According to a new poll by the National Centre for Social Research, more than half of Remain voters want to end freedom of movement, while nine in ten people want Britain to maintain free trade with the EU.

The poll goes to show how hard it is going to be for May to satisfy the British public, says Gordon Rayner in The Daily Telegraph. “EU negotiators have already made it clear that free trade can only be offered in conjunction with freedom of movement.” And given the “solid year’s worth of promissory slippage” we have seen from the three men in charge of Brexit – David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson – the omens aren’t good, says Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times.

From their opening pitch of “single-market membership without its corollary burdens”, they are now trying to “normalise the idea of total exit without a trade pact”. Johnson says it would not be “as apocalyptic” as some say; Davis describes it as “not harmful”. Watching them gives the uneasy sense “of a trio pulling themselves up to their full height to look at the monumental work of exit straight in the ankles”.

And the first hurdle isn’t even trade, says Rayner. The UK government may want to negotiate all aspects of Brexit in parallel, but the EU wants to “nail down” the terms of the divorce settlement – including a £50bn bill to meet Britain’s “liabilities” – first. Lawyers have advised May that Britain could legally leave without paying, but according to a draft plan of the EU’s negotiating strategy leaked to a Dutch newspaper, the EU will take Britain to the International Court of Justice if it tries to do so.

Even before the talks start, the chancellor’s budget fiasco may have gravely weakened the government’s position, says The Spectator. The rapid U-turn on national insurance contributions “will have been watched with amazement” on the continent. EU governments will have got the impression that May’s government “caves under pressure”, so they “will apply pressure”, believing that anything she says could also be ditched after a few days. “If the Tories can’t do a budget right,” how will they handle the vastly more intricate task of Brexit?

Brexit is certainly going to be complicated, says Frederick Studemann in the FT. The experts are busy laying out a “nightmare world of trade schedules and treaty obligations, air-traffic control systems and passport rights for financial services”. But all this reminds me of all the doom-mongering over German reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Many argued such a “monumental endeavour” would take years. Those in charge wanted to do it in months – and they did. Brexit is different, but “if the political will is there, you can make anything happen”.

The UK has a bit more to lose than the EU, but that is not “critical”, adds Wolfgang Münchau in the same paper. Of far greater importance is the UK’s integral part in industrial supply chains (notably cars), while other important linkages include close cooperation in security and defence, and coordination in economic policy at G7 and G20 levels. “Both sides have more to lose than to gain” if they can’t make this work.   

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