It’s a sign of the times we live in that you could go into any pub in the UK today, from Westminster to Wolverhampton, and utter the now omnipresent words ‘Article 50’ and a good proportion of the punters would know what you were on about.
Aneurin Bevan, the great Welsh Labour firebrand of the 1940s and 50s, figurehead of the Labour left, famously dismayed his supporters and confounded his opponents at the Labour Party Conference of 1957 when reversed his long-standing espousal of unilateral nuclear disarmament. In one of the most famous political one-liners of the last century he said “It would send a British Foreign Secretary naked into the conference-chamber.” The precise interpretation of those words has long been argued over, but it is a statement that holds true for the country today on the negotiations of the British exit terms from the European Union.
Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty sets out the terms by which a member state may exit the European Union, its location buried amongst 357 other articles hinting at the fact its authors never really envisioned it ever being put to use. Yet, the wording is clear in its intent: to give the remaining members of the Union the upper hand in the ensuing negotiations with the withdrawing country. Once that state notifies the Council of Ministers a two year countdown is set in motion to conclude a withdrawal agreement, potentially confirming future relations, only possible to extend with the unanimous agreement of all member states. Any agreement needs to be ratified by both the Council and the European Parliament, if no agreement is reached at the end of a non-extended two year process, the treaties, and existing relationships, cease to apply.
Article 50 is both the starting gun and the last bullet the next British Prime Minister may get to fire in negotiations with the rest of the EU. Until and unless we have a clear path towards an eventual settlement with the European Union no head of the British government can in all common sense pull that trigger. After his pantomime performance in the European Parliament on Tuesday Nigel Farage told BBC news that not only should Article 50 be triggered as soon as possible but that no free trade agreement was better than the current situation as we would still have ‘access to the single market’ under WTO rules. Not for the first time Mr Farage’s grasp of detail leaves much to be desired, WTO rules allow significant restrictions on trade in services, and the UK is a services superpower. In the last ONS figures before the referendum, the UK’s deficit in trade of goods with the rest of the EU rose to a staggering £34.7 billion, whilst its trade in services surplus rose to £21.4 billion.
In his years in the European Parliament Farage and his party have consistently failed to stand up for UK interests in votes and negotiations through a mixture of indifference and incompetence, his suggestion to BBC news. Continuing that tradition, in one fell swoop Mr Farage is proposing to widen our trading deficit with our biggest trading partner by tens of billions. It is little wonder other leading figures on the Leave side are urging caution before enacting Article 50 and beginning to sideline Mr Farage from the debate.
As the UK economy heads into a likely slowdown we must do all we can to protect our economic interests in the future, which means we need something significantly better than standard WTO access to the single market. EU leaders are currently insisting no informal negotiations can take place before Article 50 is triggered, they will continue to insist that for some time to come, but the game of realpolitik over the UK’s new relationship with Europe has only just begun. Britain is a significant global power and retains a number of big cards in its hand against the other 27 member states, but the moment we trigger Article 50 we’ve played our biggest trump card. Unless the other member states decide to play ball we can and must expect a protracted stand-off between Britain and the rest of the EU on Article 50.
It has often been said that Britain has never really been very good at negotiating in Europe, there is some truth to that statement, but now we need to be the toughest deal maker the continent has seen since the Treaty of Rome. It is in everyone’s interests to have an amicable divorce but if the EU refuses fair terms the UK government has a duty to the British people to use any and all tools at its disposal to achieve the best outcome, and almost all of those tools cease to function once we trigger the formal process under Article 50. The rest of the EU also know that and will seek to sow divisions within the UK and raise fears of backsliding if the trigger is not pulled swiftly in September.
On this Remainers and Leavers must be united, it is the outcome that matters most, not the timing, delay plays into the UK’s hands, not the EU’s. Continued uncertainty is far from ideal for the UK economy, but markets and investment will settle if they recognise the UK is playing the long game to achieve the best possible deal. Meanwhile, France and Germany face elections, the euro crisis will rumble on and the need for significant reform of the EU will only grow. The cries that Britain cannot hold the rest of the continent hostage have already been echoing out of Brussels, but that is precisely what she must do if necessary.
The British people have a right to expect the long tradition of cross party unity on matters of fundamental national interest to be revived, the next Prime Minister may be a Conservative but they will be batting for Britain in a high stakes game. All our political leaders, including Mr Farage, owe it to the country to support the efforts of her majesty’s government in that aim. In doing so they may also help to restore a little of the lost trust in politicians, politics can and should be a noble art, now in particular, as we forge a new place for ourselves in the world, is the time for politicians to serve the people, not themselves. Only through that unity can they properly deliver on the instructions the British people sent them on the 23rd June.