First things first: in order to leave the European Union (and so deliver on the result of last June’s referendum) the UK must leave both the Single Market and the customs union.
Failure to withdraw from the former would bind us to a regime over which we had no say, while seeking to remain in the later would prevent us from striking any new trading relationships with the rest of the world. The current national debate on Brexit would also be improved if people stopped pretending that full membership of the Single Market is simply a menu option that Theresa May stubbornly refuses to pick.
The UK has a strong hand to play in these negotiations, but no amount of aces would make the Europeans permit the kind of cherry-picking approach to Brexit that some vocal Remain supporters still claim is possible.
No, the UK is leaving the EU – its legal framework and its institutions. But if the destination is determined, the route is still up for debate. This is something that chancellor Philip Hammond understands. He said last week that “because we’re leaving the EU we will be leaving the Single Market and, by the way, we’ll be leaving the customs union”. So, no disputing the destination.
A few days later in his Mansion House speech, he talked of the need to negotiate “mutually beneficial transitional arrangements” early in negotiations. This was taken by some to imply that the chancellor was seeking to unpick Brexit, when in fact he is merely seeking to implement it in a way that minimises risk and maximises opportunities. He is right to do so. Transitional arrangements will be absolutely essential to making a success of the UK’s departure.
What’s more, they are in the EU’s interest, too. Indeed, speaking to this newspaper prior to the election, May said: “I don’t think it’s anybody’s interests to simply walk towards a position where there’s a cliff edge... people will need time to adjust”.
She said that an implementation period was necessary and sensible and that she felt it could be agreed upon “at an early stage”. Not a million miles away from her chancellor, then. The reality is that Brexit will be a long and complex series of negotiations. The Europeans will find this, too. In this context, transitional arrangements aren’t just sensible – they’re unavoidable.