After months of spats and false starts, Britain and the European Union ended 2017 by agreeing to have an amicable divorce. In 2018, they have to find a way to live together in the future — and that’s when things could get complicated.
“Brexit is going to happen,” said Lea. “Yes, it’s been a bit of a shambles. But it’ll happen.”
“We didn’t really have that (debate) in the referendum, we haven’t had it since,” he said.
Meanwhile, neither side has revealed in detail what kind of post-divorce relationship it wants. The British government has not even agreed on a united position. Some ministers want a “soft Brexit” that would see Britain pay for access to EU programs and markets, and keep the U.K.’s regulations broadly in line with those of the bloc.
The EU insists Britain cannot “cherry pick” benefits of EU membership, such as access to its borderless single market, without any of the responsibilities. EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said this week that the bloc was willing to strike a deal covering “security, defense and foreign policy, as well as justice and home affairs and include some sectors such as aviation and fisheries” — but not financial services.
Many U.K. businesses fear such an outcome. Research commissioned by the mayor of London estimated that a “no deal” Brexit could cost the U.K. half a million jobs and 50 billion pounds ($67 billion) in investment.
It’s a vast task that means setting rules for everything from trade in automotive parts to intelligence-sharing. Time is tight: A withdrawal treaty and an outline of future relations need to be ready by the fall, so that EU member states and the European Parliament can approve them before Brexit day on March 29, 2019. And the two sides have differing — even contradictory — visions.
As the Brexit deadline approaches, it will also become harder for politicians to defer discussion of difficult issues, or to paper over differences with ambiguous language.
Brexit-supporting economist Ruth Lea, economic adviser to the Arbuthnot Banking Group, believes pragmatism will prevail.