Veterans for Britain figures are among those who have signed a letter to the Prime Minister. In it, the PM is urged to appraise the mood of fellow heads of Government at Thursday’s meeting and consider it a critical forked road.
It will now become clear if there is a credible window of opportunity to deliver a substantial deal along Free Trade Agreement (FTA) lines. Alternatively, however, it may be that there is an unsurmountable obsession in Brussels with milking the UK for all it is worth that puts transition in jeopardy in the timeframe.
Anyone familiar with the book by former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, “Adults in the Room”, will be familiar with this gameplay – as will anyone who has ever followed any accession negotiations. There is a real risk that common sense does not prevail in some EU quarters. If that is the case, then the UK needs to start to prepare now for the default option.
That route is to pursue WTO Most Favoured Nation (MFN) Terms, while removing all the Technical Barriers to Trade that can be ironed out over the remaining negotiating time. Note that this is not the cliff edge default Remainers have been talking about. That result would be what is at risk if a transition to default WTO terms happens at the last minute rather than being prepped for now.
There are a lot of administrative issues to resolve. That doesn’t mean simply who gets to pay the pensions of UK staff who used to work at the EU institutions. It means setting up the administration of international trade management. An example, which rather strays from the remit of VfB but proves the point, is over organic honey. There are nine organisations in the UK that are recognised as competent to certify it as organic. The UK and the European Commission will need to meet up and agree that the existing certificates are valid and the people signing them off are considered qualified for the future, so that “organic” honey can continue to be traded across borders, in both directions. That is hardly likely be a contentious task, but doing so now removes any lingering legal doubt or prospect of customs quibbles.
It is important to note that the huge majority of these issues are uncontentious. There is also a mutual interest in the UK and EU sorting most of these things out. They can mostly be done by quickly signing a piece of paper. What is important is removing any slight prospect of doubt from the outset. Meanwhile there will be other issues that will need discussing, particularly those with money implications. It also makes sense to get talks going on transition for these right away, if the prospect is that otherwise they might stall.
But that task, though wide-ranging and not without its labours, is surmountable given the current and starting circumstances. Provided we are clear about the direction in which we are heading, and do not leave it to the last minute. That applies as much to our future defence and security relationship as to everything else.