Monday 18 March 2019 8:40 am

Want to break the Brexit deadlock? Change the negotiating terms

Follow Joe Zammit-Lucia
Who knows, Theresa May’s deal may yet get through parliament at the third attempt.

It seems unlikely given the scale of previous defeats. But making predictions about what will happen next in the Brexit saga is a mug’s game.

If the deal fails again, the UK will request a long extension to the Article 50 process. The EU has, rightly, made it clear that any extension must have a clear purpose.

A General Election or a second referendum would clearly be justifiable reasons for a long delay. But assuming that those two options remain off the table (and, again, who can possibly know?), what would a long delay actually achieve?

As things stand today, probably not much. Neither side seems to have any intention to move away from its position on the Irish backstop – the “irreconcilable difference”, to use the term at the heart of many divorces. While that remains the case, no amount of delay will resolve the issue.

The origins of the current impasse can be traced to one action by the EU and the agreement to it by the UK: the decision to sequence the negotiations so that the withdrawal agreement had to be nailed down first, and be legally binding, while the nature of the future trading relationship would only be the subject of a non-binding political declaration, to be finalised later.

This was a choice. There is no firm requirement in Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty that prohibits simultaneous negotiations.

That the EU insisted on such sequencing is understandable. It put the bloc in a strong negotiating position and weakened the UK’s leverage.

Neither, I suspect, was it envisaged at the time just how intractable the Irish border question would become. This was the first time that Article 50 had been invoked, and nobody had any previous experience of how such a negotiation would evolve.

But the reality is that, while such sequencing remains, the Irish backstop issue will continue to be totally unresolvable.

It is now time to recognise that no amount of delay will resolve this issue unless the sequencing is abandoned and the negotiations proceed towards a single final agreement, concerning withdrawal and future relationship – both legally binding.

Consider the following scenario as a way out of the impasse.

The Article 50 process, and therefore the UK’s exit from the EU, is extended by a period of, say, two years with an option of further extension. During that period, the final agreement on both withdrawal and future relationship will be negotiated and agreed.

The UK would remain a member of the EU, pay its net contributions, and have a say, albeit a necessarily limited one for a member that’s on its way out, in decision-making that will affect it.

When there is an exit payment to be made (another bugbear for British eurosceptics), it will be clear what the UK is getting for its money in terms of future access.

Whether the EU27 would be prepared to abandon such sequencing remains to be seen. But unless they do, there is nowhere left to go absent a second referendum.

Even then, it would be foolish for anyone to be complacent that a second vote will reverse the Brexit decision – the result of another referendum could reaffirm the country’s commitment to leaving the EU, while causing further division and uncertainty.

A UK General Election – the other option suggested to break the stalemate – might not resolve anything either, except for the removal of May. And who knows who might replace her? Possibly someone worse, more intransigent, more eurosceptic, or more confused.

The Labour party is just as divided within itself about the best course for Brexit, so there is no guarantee that a Labour Prime Minister would do a better job of rallying parliament behind a workable outcome for leaving.

Extending Article 50 and abandoning the current sequencing process may not be popular. And the EU may not agree – showing the same rigid inflexibility that it did with David Cameron, leading to the current mess which could have been totally avoided.

Fusing the current sequencing and reaching a final comprehensive agreement may involve keeping the UK in the EU beyond the current budget cycle, which will likely be loudly opposed by Brexiteers.

But while this is a complication, it is not an irresolvable one.

It is preferable to a delay that turns out to be pointless because the framework of the negotiations remains the same as the one that has led us to the current impasse.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.