The citizens of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (more on that last bit in a moment) voted on June 23, 2016, to leave the European Union. In spite of the apparent fact that neither voters nor their government know what that means, Prime Minister Theresa May formally began the process of extricating her country from the bloc on March 29, 2017, which under the terms of Treaty of Lisbon means the U.K. should cease being a member of the EU on March 29, 2019, which is nine-and-a-half months away. Given how preciouslittle has been done to effect such a thing in the previous two years, all are agreed that a clean break on that date is not going to happen, and they’ve given themselves an extra 21 months to hash everything out. This, some of those experts that Britons were so eagerly sticking up two fingers in the direction of, is yet another Brexiteerfantasy awaiting dashing.
“Ministers must accept that not everything will be ready by December 2020,” the Institute for Government think tank says in a report this week.
“Work will continue, possibly for years, after Brexit. Business as usual will become Brexit as usual,” says the institute, a nonpartisan group with good access to government officials.
Extricating the U.K. from the thousands upon thousands of pages of the EU’s acquis—the bloc’s body of law and obligations, now embedded into British law over four decades of membership—will require “a massively complex, phased program,” Ivan Rogers, who resigned early last year as British ambassador to the EU over differences with Prime Minister Theresa May’s government, told a House of Commons committee this week. Brexit should be viewed, he said, “as a process, not as an event.”
Of course, the British government has already acknowledged that things won’t be done by the end of 2020 with regard to the stickiest wicket in the whole quagmire that is the Brexit pitch: Northern Ireland. Everyone agrees that a hard border must not reappear between those six counties and the 26 that achieved their own Brexit 97 years ago, because unpleasant things tend to happen when such a hard border exists. Everyone also agrees that there’s basically no way to avoid one if the U.K. is to leave Common Market. An extra year will be required to figure that one out.
To satisfy its anti-EU MPs, who fear the proposal could leave the U.K. indefinitely in thrall to the EU, the government has said it would like the backstop arrangement to finish by the end of 2021—ahead of the next U.K. general election. That is an aspiration, but Brussels has already objected that it can’t be a credible backstop if it is time-limited.
Nonetheless, the U.K. proposal could be the basis for a glide-path out of the EU that minimizes disruption to business.
Which is another way of saying that 2021 is too ambitious a target, and that, like a solution to the Irish question, the Brexit question is one that really has no answer, and thus finality is yet another illusion, and we’re going to have to be hearing about the theoretical construct of Brexit long after the merciful end of May’s premiership, and in all likelihood for the rest of our goddamned lives.