Parliament has authorised Theresa May to trigger Article 50 and set in motion negotiations for Britain to leave the EU. I expect her to do this on 30th March, before Parliament recesses, bringing stage one of Brexit to an end. That was the easy stage. What follows is more unpredictable and more demanding on Government and Parliament.
Little is likely to happen before the French go to the polls in April and May. The ‘divorce bill’ will be at the top of the negotiation agenda. As a member, the UK has supported a number of decisions and initiatives that have incurred expenditure which we approved and we will be expected to pay our share of those expenses. £50 billion has been mentioned in Brussels and our negotiators are likely to dispute this. The future status of the 1.2 million British citizens living in EU member states and the three million EU citizens living in Britain will also be high on the agenda. The latter is important because losing those working in the NHS, the agriculture and building industries as well as academics in our universities would harm those sectors.
Future trade with the EU once we leave the single market and the customs union are crucial issues. EU tariffs will make our exports more expensive so Mrs May wants a deal that involves free trade without free movement of labour. That is a tough ask and is unlikely to be agreed. This makes pursuing alternative markets outside the EU a priority but any deals cannot be finalised until we have left the EU so transitional arrangements with the EU to protect UK jobs would help to save some of them.
Parliament will have a lot to do in the new session starting in May. Brexit necessitates a lot of legislation. First will be the ‘Great Repeal Bill’ to remove the 1972 European Communities Act from the Statute Book. Subsequent measures will include Bills to preserve workers’ rights and other provisions currently established by EU law. Other Bills relating to immigration, taxation, agriculture, trade and customs regimes, fisheries and data protection will be needed. So too will Bills relating to EU immigrant benefits, reciprocal health care benefits for travellers, road freight, nuclear safeguards, emissions trading and the transfer of spending from various EU funds to our Government departments. Laws and policies relating to the devolved governments, such as agriculture and fisheries, will also have to be negotiated with the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies. The future of British agriculture will be a serious issue once farmers cease to receive CAP funds.
All this will put pressure on Government Departments and civil servants and there are 18% fewer now than in 2010. The Institute of Government says much of the expertise required for handling the changes is no longer found in Whitehall but is now in such bodies as the Environment Agency that have been implementing and enforcing EU regulations. That expertise will be needed in the negotiations and in the subsequent implementation of Brexit. There was no advance planning for all this because the Government did not anticipate the referendum result.
All this prompts some hard questions. How aware were the Brexiteers of all this when they campaigned to leave the EU? Why did those who knew not warn us before we voted? Would the result have been different if voters understood the implications of voting to leave the EU? Participatory democracy is a fine ideal but it requires genuine voter education and it did not happen. “Let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance”. (Proverbs 1:5).