British Prime Minister Theresa May has announced she will sign Article 50 – to officially begin the Brexit – by March 2017, starting a two-year countdown for one of the largest political time bombs in European Union history.
Article 50, once signed, will allow the United Kingdom two years to negotiate new trade deals with the European Union.
However, is it possible for Britain to negotiate a totally new agreement with the EU in just two years? Not likely.
Dr Gijs Jan Brandsma, assistant professor at the Utrecht University School of Governance, said there is no way that Britain can negotiate such a complicated deal in time.
“Take Greenland for example, it split off [from the EU], much like the UK wants to split off the European Union.”
“Those negotiations in 1979 lasted for two years, and they only concerned fish.”
In her address to the Conservative Conference in Birmingham earlier this month, May seemed confident in her decision.
“It’s an important step we are taking because, first of all, it makes it very clear to the British people who voted to leave the EU that is exactly what we will be doing.”
Confidence aside, what happens when the two years runs out? If the United Kingdom has not reached an agreement with the EU after two years, Britain must apply for an extension for negotiations.
Simple. Except for one small detail. The extension must be approved by a unanimous vote in the European Council.
If the vote fails, and the United Kingdom has no agreement, and no hope for an extension, they will be immediately removed from the EU. This is when the timer runs out, and the bomb goes off.
As Dr Brandsma explains,
“it only takes one country, one government leader who faces re-election who could play on the populist card, or at least think he can gain electoral advantage by antagonising the British, for the entire process to basically break down.”
“If there is no exit settlement, and there is no agreement on an extension of a deadline, it means that the country in question will loose EU membership… that would constitute a very hard Brexit.”
After leaving the EU, Britain will be in the same boat as any other non-EU country, with one major problem. Since Brussels handled Britain’s international trade, the United Kingdom now has no trade agreements of its own.
“This is the legal reality. Shit is going to hit the fan. And Theresa May is trying to relocate the fan every now and again,” Dr Brandsma said.
May plans to transpose EU law and trade practice directly into the British system.
“We will take European law into UK law and then, Parliament will be able to decide whether we wish to change those or keep them.”
However Dr Brandsma counters, “This doesn’t work. Because European Union law, if you would transpose it completely, it would assign responsibilities for program management to the European Commission.”
“The UK will need experts that know how to negotiate a trade deal. Currently the United Kingdom has zero, because the authority of making trade deals is a European one.”
“It’s a clumsy solution to a messy problem.”