David Davis made his first statement to Parliament on Brexit this week. More by implication than direct statement, he told us quite a lot.
He confirmed that Article 50 would not be triggered this year and that Parliament would not be given a vote on the triggering. But there would be plenty of opportunities for Parliament to vote at later stages of the actual negotiation.
Mr Davis implied that Article 50 would be invoked fairly early next year. He talked of a negotiation of two years and came close to saying that it would be completed before the General Election due in 2020. He appeared to rule out seeking an extension of the two-year period, given that that would require the unanimous agreement of the other Member States.
It was evident that Whitehall had been allowed to make no preparations for Brexit in advance of the referendum. So, the lack of clarity on what the Government want from the negotiation is down to the fact that only now is the work, and extensive consultation with all sectors of the economy, being undertaken.
Part of the Prime Minister’s evident irritation with Davis’s suggestion that without freedom of movement the UK would not be part of the single market, though it would negotiate access to it, is that the Brexit ministers are giving her assertion and not detailed argument supported by fact.
Davis clearly believes that the trade surplus in goods enjoyed by the rest of the EU with the UK makes a deal on such trade eminently negotiable. He accepted that membership of the Customs Union that is the present EU would prevent the UK from making its own trade deals with the rest of the world and was not therefore an option. But other variants of a customs union might be. The aim there is not just to avoid tariffs but frontier checks under e.g. rules of origin as well.
He ruled out any of the existing models (Norway, Switzerland etc.) and reiterated the need for a deal ‘unique to Britain, not off the shelf’.
He spoke of a mixture of ‘political and technological’ solutions to the commitment to maintaining the common travel area with the Republic of Ireland. That implies some kind of work permit scheme for EU migrants.
While appearing to reject paying a price, in continued freedom of movement, in order to maintain access to the EU single market both Davis and Theresa May have been careful to keep open their options on what control of the UK’s borders may mean in practice. He pretty much guaranteed the rights of EU citizens resident in the UK, on the condition of reciprocity from our EU partners.
Two things are clear. The Government are a long way from having negotiating positions and the three Brexiteers are a long way from realising, let alone accepting, that the devil is in the huge amount of detail. At the end of a two-year negotiation, a basic deal may be in place but implementation is going to require phasing over a long period.
Measurement and evaluation