Untangling Britain from the EU now that Brexit has been triggered marks the start of what’s likely to be years of fraught negotiations, writes political commentator Thomas Coughlan

With a tacky pun projected on the white cliffs of Dover, the United Kingdom fired the starting gun on its quick-fire divorce from the European Union. “Dover and out”, it proclaimed. Commissioned by The Sun, an infamous British tabloid, the sign was designed to be legible from France, just a few miles across the channel. Its typically British bluster accurately sums up the oddly jubilant mood in some parts of the country after the triggering of Article 50, the formal notification of Britain’s intention to leave the EU. 

The spirited jingoism that was so mercifully absent in much of the coverage of the Westminster terrorist attack seems to have returned to the front pages with a vengeance.

The message from the continent has been equally brusque. In the form of leaked draft documents and comments from its leaders, a picture is emerging of the fractious state of the relationship between the UK and its former partners, a harbinger of the discord that will characterise the next two years of negotiations.

Symbolic of the confusion that surrounds Brexit is the fact that the two sides cannot even decide what happens next. The two parties have a very different idea of how the two-year exit negotiations mandated by Article 50 will be conducted.

The text of Prime Minister Theresa May’s letter notifying the EU of her country’s wish to leave stated that she wanted to ‘agree the terms of our future partnership alongside those of our withdrawal from the EU’. This point is important for the UK. It would allow the country to negotiate some sort of deal to replace their current membership of the Union and avoid a ‘cliff-edge’ Brexit. However, this was immediately doused by Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, who said that Britain could not negotiate its future relationship with the EU whilst still a member.

‘The negotiations must first clarify how we will disentangle our interlinked relationship… and only when this question is dealt with can we, hopefully soon after, begin talking about our future relationship’, she told reporters in Berlin.

May’s second bid for time is to extend the two year negotiating period by securing a transitional arrangement.

‘Both the UK and the EU would benefit from implementation periods to adjust in a smooth and orderly way to new arrangements’, reads her letter. On this point the EU is more open to negotiation, but not much. A leaked draft resolution from the European Parliament, which is thought to echo the thoughts of the other governing organs of the EU states that there may be a transitional deal, but that its scope will be limited and it must never be a substitute for union membership.

This is a tight timeframe. By way of contrast, the Luxembourg Agreement of 1971 which set out the terms for British accession to the European Economic Community, the forerunner of the European Union, gave New Zealand much longer to transition to an export economy less reliant on exports to the UK.

Signed in 1971, it gave New Zealand 6 years to reduce its British butter exports to 71% of pre-1971 levels by 1976. This was open to review and was still being discussed in Parliament in the 1980s. Any transitional arrangement is unlikely to be so generous. At best, decreasing quotas for British exports may be worked into a post-Brexit trade deal.

It’s not just trade deals with the European Union that are a sticking point. The UK has made it clear that it wants to secure extra-European trade agreements as quickly as possible. Australia and New Zealand have indicated interest — as has Donald Trump. The European Union has a lot to say about this too. The leaked resolution stipulated that it would not conduct negotiations with the UK on any trade deal if the UK began negotiating with another state whilst still an EU member. The message seems very clear. In the short term, at least, the UK is very much tethered to Europe: not over, and very much not out.

The prospect of a quick trade deal with the United States is bleak anyway. The EU’s trade agreement with Canada, which was finalised in 2016 and has yet to be ratified, took seven years to finalise. A quick-fire agreement is unlikely to be much better, or of much benefit to the UK, if one could be signed in time. The irony of forging a good deal for Britain within the ambit of the President’s boisterous ‘America First’ foreign policy has not been lost on the British media.

This same irony lingered in the air this week after the resurfacing of a 1988 management book featuring such golden rules as: “quick negotiations are very bad for one party or the other” and “losers make the first concession on major issues” was found to be authored not by the American President, but by the British Brexit minister, David Davis, then an executive for a British sugar company.

The time frame is only the start of the UK’s problems. As most of its extra-European trade was negotiated on a European level, the UK has only a bare-bones team of trade negotiators: around 40, compared with the 550 employed by the EU, according to Lord Price, the minister for trade and investment. The situation is so dire that late last year New Zealand foreign minister Murray McCully even offered Theresa May the services of New Zealand trade negotiators, who would presumably be seconded to the UK whilst it built up its own cohort.

Winston Churchill once wrote wistfully that an ideal European policy would be to ‘arrange to have the United Kingdom towed out fifteen hundred miles into the Atlantic’. That was in 1935. Such a sentiment has waxed and waned in the intervening decades, but now, with a government seemingly hell-bent on bringing Churchill’s imagining to fruition (at least symbolically) the British public will see, as Churchill did 80 years ago, that disengagement is a lot easier in theory than practice.

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