Transitioning transition

Some transitions take longer than others

I’m back to transition arrangements once again this week, despite having got a load off my chest not that long ago.

This is prompted in part by stories such as The Sun’s piece on Tuesday about the UK agreeing to end transition on 31 December 2020, as per the EU’s proposals.

The story is an odd one, not least because it’s another concession to the EU, but one that The Sun feels is a good concession, because it ends transition some moths sooner than the government’s original suggestion.

Indeed, the entire British debate on transition is marked by confusion as much as by indifference: the real issue is the new relationship and that’s where the battles must be fought. And that’s as true for Remainers and soft-Brexiters as it is for the hard camp. Transition is a technicality.

But if European integration tells us anything, then it’s that technicalities have a way of becoming very important.

In this case, the much under discussed feature of transition is its scope to become longer than originally planned. The EU’s transition proposal removed language about the period of transition beyond an intention to end in December 2020: this was a big step back from December and the European Council, when all and sundry were talking about a fixed and non-extendable period.

The cynical interpretation is that it serves both the UK and the EU to carve out this piece of technical space, for two, inter-linked reasons.

Firstly, the UK still has yet to provide a definitive and meaningful statement on the end-state of the new relationship. The round of speeches and lobbying that the Cabinet kicked off yesterday are almost certainly not going to change that. This in turn means that Article 50 will remain a very lean agreement, setting out not more on the new relationship than the intention to get along and talk lots. Keeping the door open for a longer transition in which to do that discussing makes sense.

Secondly, it’s becoming evident that British public opinion remains very thin. As much as the overwhelming majority of people think the government is doing a bad job on negotiating Article 50, that does not translate into a shift of views on leaving/not leaving the EU. To crudely characterise, the public voted in the referendum, made a decision and they now expect the politicians to get on with it and to hell with the details.

Seen in that light, it is not inconceivable that it will be enough for most voters to know that after 29 March 2019, the UK will have left the EU. And because nothing will have changed (because of the ‘full-monty’ transition) that will be OK, especially as net migration has fallen sharply due to the economic and political uncertainties in which the UK is operating right now.

That in turn might provide the government with more space to negotiate with internal factions, especially because no-one argues that there’s any kind of fast-track process in Article 49 to get the UK back into the Union: out means out, indeed.

Thus by the time late 2020 arrives, the pressure to have concluded a new relationship might have lessened, along with the political heat that would come with extending transition. And as a good political rule of thumb, once you’d done something once, then it’s much easier to do it again. You can compare and contrast Sterling and the ERM with Greece and the Eurozone on that idea.

Article 50 has proved to be very hard going, from the start. If transition is a sleeping dog, then that still doesn’t mean things will go easier for the various parties involved. But that shouldn’t mean it doesn’t bear inspection, especially if it contains the model for a much longer period than everyone seems to imagine right now.