Article 50 has been triggered – now let’s give David Davis the maximum support

Article 50 has been triggered – now let’s give David Davis the maximum support

We’ve finally done it.

Yesterday was a truly historic day and the triggering of Article 50 means that the UK will almost certainly leave the EU in two years time. I say ‘almost certainly’ because it is theoretically possible for the remaining 27 countries, acting unanimously, to extend the negotiating period. Legal experts differ on whether it is actually possible to withdraw Article 50 notification but whatever the legal niceties, politically, both options are total non-starters.

So what happens next? In the short term, acres of media comment, but probably not much actual negotiating. The European Council (Heads of Government) meets in late April to agree the ‘negotiating mandate’ for Michel Barnier’s team in the Commission, who will conduct the actual talks. Before then, we will see an escalation of flowery rhetoric of red lines and priorities as each side stakes out its positions. To those of us who have participated in European negotiations (albeit on lesser issues) this is all very familiar. To borrow a phrase from my good friend Syed Kamall MEP, this is the Haka, the war dance before the contest actually commences.

The talks will be a complicated game of 3 dimensional chess, with both sides having a load of interested observers closely watching proceedings. Everything in the EU leaks like a sieve, so expect lots of negotiating documents (certainly from the EU side) to reach the media, sometimes deliberately.

Initially at least, I expect Barnier to attempt to maintain the line that we can’t talk about future trading arrangements until the ‘divorce’ terms are agreed. Translation – you owe us £50 billion, or whatever large number they have dreamed up. Our position will be to fall back on our legal advice that we have no financial liabilities once we leave. Ultimately though this is politics, and I expect after a bit of a stand off, this issue will get shunted into a subsidiary group of ‘sherpas’ who will attempt to fashion a compromise with us paying something towards common programmes in which we want to participate such as Framework scientific cooperation and the Erasmus student exchange, which I think is something most leavers could accept.

We can then get on with the important bit – our future trade arrangements. This is unlike all previous trade negotiations in that we start from a position of no tariffs and identical regulatory systems. I find it almost impossible to believe that these will be the only trade talks in history to re-impose tariffs and barriers to trade. So I am optimistic that a deal can be done, for the simple reason that one is manifestly in the interest of both parties.

In most European negotiations ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’ holds true. In other words, different priorities are played off against each other until there is a final agreement that nobody loves but everyone can live with – usually delivered, amid great melodrama, at 4am in the morning!

The important thing is that we give David Davis and his team the maximum support in their Herculean task. Publicly seeking to tie their hands or impose pre-conditions merely gives the EU side useful inside information on the UK’s ‘bottom’ line which undermines our position. There will be a huge amount of comment and speculation during the process, much of it unhelpful from frustrated remainers and we should not aid them in their misconceived fight.

Let’s raise our eyes to the horizon and judge the outcome, not the process.