The basics are well-known: having triggered Article 50 to terminate its membership in the European Union, the United Kingdom has a precious 18 months to get a deal done. Unless every one of the 27 other Member States approve an extension of time, the UK will be a so-called “third country” vis-à-vis the EU on 30 March 2019. The UK Government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Theresa May, has proposed a “hard Brexit” that enables the EU to conclude trade agreements with other countries in what has become known as the “Global Britain” approach. Aspirations aside, the deal to be negotiated between the EU and the UK can range from virtually no change to the status quo for years to come to a quick and risky departure that greatly increases the pressure on the UK to negotiate favorable trade agreements with the EU and other trading partners.
Noise from the UK suggests a strong belief that the UK can leave the EU but maintain trading privileges, including tariff-free and frictionless trade. Not so, says EU Chief Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier. Barnier has made clear that the UK cannot have its desired legal autonomy without the free movement of EU citizens and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and at the same time continue to enjoy access to the EU market and customs union privileges. Without access to the market and customs union, the UK faces tariffs and customs formalities that mean time and money for UK businesses and exporters. With access to the market and customs privileges, the UK cannot negotiate trade deals with other countries.
Only so many options exist for the future relationship of the UK with the EU. The so-called “Norway” option would mean continuing access to the EU market but without any say by the UK in the applicable rules and would entail customs procedures. The alternative “Turkey” option would mean a customs agreement but with controls to ensure compliance of goods and services with EU rules. In both cases, the UK would get less than it enjoys today and would not achieve its desired regulatory autonomy; moreover, the UK would remain blocked from negotiating free trade arrangements with other countries.
If initial negotiations on the rights of EU citizens, the UK’s financial obligations, and the complex Irish border issue go well, the EU and UK could be discussing the terms of their future relationship as early as the fall of this year. That may be a big “if”.