Timothy Garton-Ash, academic and journalist, is one of the most acute observers of European politics. But I hope his predications for the outcome of Brexit negotiations are too pessimistic.
He sees a story in four acts. Act I was the referendum, Act II the period up to the triggering of Article 50, We are now at the start of Act III which will conclude in two years when the UK formally leaves the EU. Act IV is the period after that when the UK is in a transitional stage seeking a long-term agreement. Act V is facing up to the consequences of leaving the EU
This is set out in a Guardian article (do read it in full) saying, rightly ,”it takes time to burst the populist bubble”. He writes:
Here is where the five-act timetable comes in. The parliamentary vote on the interim result of the negotiation in autumn 2018 will be an important moment, but it currently seems unlikely that public opinion will have swung so decisively that a parliamentary majority, including Labour MPs with heavily pro-Brexit constituencies, would actually vote to send May back to Brussels with a flea in her ear, buzzing at her to get a better deal. It’s even more unlikely that it would vote for the second referendum proposed by the Liberal Democrats.
He may well be right, but I am clinging on to the, for me, optimistic belief that public opinion will swing well before the 2020 general election. That by around September next year when the future arrangements are becoming clear, public opinion will have swung and parliament will not accept anything other than conditions fundamentally similar to EU membership or, even continued membership.
We are already seeing financial businesses, games companies and others moving jobs to Europe. Manufacturing companies will have, by September next year, a clearer picture of the what if any tariffs they will face and the impact on supply chains. All business have to make long-term plans and their arrangements must be made before Garton-Ash’s Act IV.
At the same time the Health Service and employers in most sectors of the economy will see continued loss of skilled staff unless the prospects for life and work in the UK look good.
The crucial question in 18 months time will be whether the framework for a deal to be settled in a transitional period is good enough to satisfy most of the public and enough MPs to give Mrs May her majority. I think it unlikely that she would go to the house with no deal – that would inevitably mean being sent back to negotiate again unless the EU was so fed up with whole process it says, “enough”.
We should not worry too much about whether the Commons is given a vote. If it really wants one it will get it: the alternative would be a motion of “no confidence”.
An alternative at this stage would to revoke the Article 50 notice (my preferred outcome). The legal discussion about this option would become meaningless: it would be a political issue. We might be lucky and the EU would agree that membership continued although there would be a severe loss of influence and, probably, the rebate.
To continue beyond this stage, into Act IV, without a clear picture of what would emerge at then end of a transition period would only result in continued uncertainty and a draining away of global confidence in the UK, or what would be left of it.