No to ‘transition’ – Yes to ‘Article 50 extension’

Many commentators propose a long ‘transition’ period. But transition is a one way street; there is no easy way back. Much better would be significantly to extend the Article 50 negotiating period to five or even six years. This would give the British people time to ponder the decisions being taken in their name. But since an extension has to be agreed unanimously by all EU Member States, the EU27 need to be convinced that it would be in their interests to offer such an extension. In December 2017 we made this case in individual emails to all the 678 Members of the European Parliament  coming from the EU27. These emails were based on a memorandum which can be downloaded here: Memorandum to MEPs. Or read a shortened version below. #ExtendArt50

The replies we have received so far from MEPs have been encouraging.

The essential idea is simple and can be stated in a few sentences. The present British government has been captured by a small group of hardline politicians who have always opposed Britain’s membership of the EU on dogmatic grounds, but who do not represent the views of the British people as a whole. Many of those who voted for Brexit in the referendum did so for reasons which have little to do with Britain’s real relationship with the EU. The British people now need to be given time to think through the practical implications of leaving the EU, to have the opportunity to reflect further on whether Brexit really is in the interests of the country and possibly change their mind. It is also probable that political priorities will change as other political events come to seem more important, and there remains the real possibility that the British electorate will elect a new government in the near future.

The proposal is, therefore, that the ’EU27’ Member States should, at an appropriate moment, voluntarily (i.e. without being requested by the British government) decide unanimously to extend the Brexit negotiating period under Article 50 of the Treaty from two to five or six years – not an unreasonable time for such a complex negotiation. At the same time the ‘27’ should refuse any transition period, which only complicates matters and muddies the waters. The present British government would probably wish to refuse such an ‘offer’, but, faced with the possibility of a disastrous alternative, it seems most likely that the British Parliament would insist that the government did indeed accept it. The negotiations so far have shown that there are any number of difficult detailed but important issues which have to be properly dealt with and that the two-year period for departure provided under Article 50 of the Treaty is wholly inadequate for resolving them. As these issues are worked through, it may become clearer just how unsatisfactory Brexit will be for Britain, which may affect public opinion in the country.

Britain has been a difficult but ultimately effective Member of the EU. Many EU Member States would on balance prefer Britain to be in the EU than outside. Others might be more hesitant. So it is important to note that under this proposal the ‘27’ would not be asked to take a view on Britain’s continued membership, but merely to decide on whether the negotiations should be extended. At some future date the British government may then seek to withdraw its Article 50 notice; that would be the point at which the ‘27’ would have to decide on Britain’s continued membership or not.

How to avoid Brexit

One way to avoid the looming catastrophe of Brexit would be for the 27 EU Member States simply and unilaterally to extend the negotiating period from two years to five – without waiting for a request to do so from the British government. They could use the argument that two years was simply too short for such a complex negotiation. I think at the same time they should refuse any transition period.

The British government would not like this proposal and could of course still insist on leaving after two years. But, since the present negotiations are leading to a cliff edge and to Britain simply crashing out of the EU, it seems highly unlikely that there would be a majority in Parliament to exit after two years when five years was on offer and available.

Anything could then happen in the following three years. In, very likely, a deep recession, Britain might come to its senses again. And a new government could well be in power.

My argument is set out in more detail in my recently published article in Dantemag which can be found here.

Reflections eighteen months later

This is my first blog post for a year and a half. Then, early in 2016, the risk of environmental destruction certainly appeared as the greatest problem facing humankind. Internationally this was publicly acknowledged by the adoption  on 12 December 2015 of the Paris Agreement by 195 negotiating parties.

Some of course perceived this problem as intrinsically linked to social injustice across the world and to rising inequality in income, but especially in wealth. Certainly this was the argument of Pope Francis in his highly influential 2015 Encyclical, Laudato Si.

Looking back this now seems like a high water mark, at least for the time being.  Since then the tide of interest in the environment, at least in the media and public discourse has receded. Nevertheless, a great deal of practical activity and investment has been maintained, particularly in renewable energy, the costs of which continue to fall. Whether all this will be sufficient is more doubtful.

Then came the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. Both clearly reflected something deeper happening in these countries – ordinary people taking an opportunity to kick out blindly at the ruling political class and the neo-liberal economic policies that have been pursued there for the last two or three decades. These policies have allowed the rich to grow richer and left  stranded the poorer members of society, whether they are in work or not.

So the political ground is shifting, not just in these countries but in the wider world as well. And the attention of the media, (and indeed my own attention), has become very focussed on these events. These are not problems for humanity on the same scale as that of the destruction of our environment. But they may represent the beginning of a change in political discourse and social values across the wider world – as the tip of an iceberg in effect. Social divisions and the intolerance of others seem to be increasing. And many feel freerer to voice their long-held intolerance which only serves to exacerbate the vicious circle.

In an article in the Guardian newspaper on 1 August 2017 concerning proposals for a Holocaust memorial in London, Sir Peter Bazalgatte (chair of the Holocaust Memorial Foundation) was reported as saying that the memorial would “underline what happens when society breaks down, when law, order, decency and tolerance, and empathy disappear. This is what happened in 1930s Germany, and it has lessons today, lessons about tolerance, lessons about race hatred, lessons for all of us”.

More bluntly Joan Salter, 77, who was separated from her Polish-Jewish family during the war, said: “[It is] comforting to assume that civilisation is a one-way street, when in fact experience teaches us that it is but a thin veneer, very easily torn away. Germany yesterday could so easily become Britain tomorrow. In recent times, we have seen the splintering of social cohesion, the growing willingness to express extreme views, the ability of some to act out their intolerance with violent acts, the lack of respect for those of different cultures. We live in dangerous times.”

It may well happen that the Constitution and institutions of the US prove to be sufficiently robust that Trump’s presidency will be seen as a passing blip in the history of that country – so long as he does not engage in nuclear war in the meantime. And, although the final outcome of Brexit may be the wilful impoverishment of a country whose people cannot yet accept that Britain is no longer immensely powerful and influential on the world stage, this would still not be an event of world importance. Yet the undercurrents driving these events along may well be of great importance and worth trying to understand.