LONDON — Theresa May arrives in Florence on Friday with the political realities of Brexit closing in around her.
To begin negotiations on a future trade deal or even a transition period, the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier must be able to advise EU leaders at the European Council summit in October that “sufficient progress” has been made on what it defines as “divorce issues,” including the so-called Brexit bill and citizens’ rights.
Back in London, concern is building about the lack of time before the U.K. crashes out of the EU, with or without a deal, on March 29, 2019, when the two-year negotiation period allowed for under Article 50 expires.
In a special two-and-a-half hour cabinet meeting Thursday, Chancellor Philip Hammond intervened to urge more haste. “’We need to keep the pace up’ was his message,” said one government official. Hammond believes the time has come to make a decision about what kind of relationship Britain wants with the EU post Brexit and argued the decision-making process needs to be speeded up considerably over the fall.
On Friday afternoon, May will announce that the British government wants a time-limited transition period once the U.K. leaves the bloc, according to extracts of her speech released by Downing Street overnight.
In Brussels, Barnier has insisted that the U.K. can take its pick from the different models of EU association available
Officials familiar with the content of the Cabinet discussions said the agreement was for a transition period lasting no longer than two years. This is not an “implementation period” — a set time to put into practise a Brexit trade agreement that is already signed and sealed by the time Britain leaves. It is instead a grace period to get ready for a Brexit not yet agreed in order to prevent a regulatory cliff edge, most U.K. officials now believe.
As things stand, Britain will have a political Brexit in 18 months’ time, but little else.
European diplomats insist that EU law must remain in place during a transition — and that means the European Court of Justice continues to have oversight and freedom of movement must continue. A two-year transition is, in many respects, Brexit delayed until 2021.
The prime minister is also expected to urge her counterparts in Brussels to show “creativity” — code for being less dogmatically rigid about the process, which insists on dealing with divorce before talking about any future relationship.
The plea is likely to fall on deaf ears, with Brussels adamant that legally they cannot alter the sequence even if they wanted to. Officials point out that the EU treaties set out that any future trade deal will require ratification by national legislatures and that can only happen once the U.K. is a so-called third country.
Cabinet (kind of) calm
In a week that began with Foreign Secretary and Euroskeptic standard-bearer Boris Johnson splurging a paean across the pages of Saturday’s Daily Telegraph, getting agreement on a transition within Cabinet represents significant progress for the prime minister.
For Brexiteers, the unpleasant medicine of transition was washed down with a spoonful of Euroskeptic sugar — a promise not to pursue an “EEA minus” final destination in which Britain would permanently shadow the single market and all its regulations in order to maintain as much access as possible.
In Whitehall there is much skepticism about this “concession,” which the foreign secretary’s allies have suggested marks a victory for the Johnson circus.
As the prime minister’s former chief of staff Nick Timothy questioned on Twitter, was such a prospect ever on the table? May has repeatedly ruled out freedom of movement and large annual payments to Brussels. Without such sacrifices, EEA membership — essentially remaining in the single market — is a non-starter.
According to the FT, May also told Cabinet ministers it would not be “CETA plus” in the current jargon — or, in plain English, a free-trade agreement along the lines of what Canada has agreed with Brussels, but more far-reaching in scope.
This, however, is little more than a repetition of the old No 10. trope about seeking a “bespoke” arrangement for the U.K.
It should be remembered that in Brussels, Barnier has insisted that the U.K. can take its pick from the different models of EU association available — Norwegian, Swiss, Turkish or Canadian — but it cannot pick and choose elements of several of those options. The picking of cherries is a grave offense in Brussels.
Speaking to Italian MPs in Rome only 24 hours before May’s appearance in Florence, Barnier underlined the point. “One thing is sure,” he said. “It is not — and will not — be possible for a third country to have the same benefits as the Norwegian model but the limited obligations of the Canadian model.”
“If Jeremy has an agenda it is just to force decisions given that the clock is ticking” — British official on Jeremy Heywood
The failure to define what comes next is also beginning to grate in Whitehall.
Another influential figure pressing the case for haste is the cabinet secretary, Jeremy Heywood, the most senior civil servant in the country who sits in on May’s team’s crucial 8:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. meetings every day.
“If Jeremy has an agenda it is just to force decisions given that the clock is ticking,” said a British official who knows the cabinet secretary well. Heywood is not interested in forcing a decision one way or another, the official said, but is concerned that decisions are made “so that we can get on with it.”
There’s one point where officials in Brussels and London might just agree.
David M. Herszenhorn and Charlie Cooper contributed to this article.