Do not exaggerate the effect the election will have on Brexit

The legal framework for the UK’s departure from the EU needs no further legislation
by: Wolfgang Münchau            

The fall of the Berlin Wall changed the history of Europe, and so did last year’s Brexit referendum. Last week’s UK general election belongs in a different category — that of the things that shine brightly in the darkness of an election night, but fade away in the harsh light of the following morning. The election is important for domestic politics, and for Theresa May. But it is almost entirely irrelevant to Brexit.

Much of the commentary I have read in the past couple of days overlooks three fundamental points.

The first is that Brexit, hard or soft, is not the UK’s decision alone. It is not even primarily the UK’s decision. The second is that the Brexit process is driven by the legal procedures of the EU, not whether commentators think a UK prime minister has a mandate or not. And finally, from a European perspective, it does not matter whether the UK has a minority government, a coalition or a governing party with a 100-seat majority. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, never achieved a result as good as Mrs May did last week.
Can Brexit still be stopped? For that to happen, an unlikely sequence of events would need to take place in the next 18 months in the right order: a fresh election won by a party that explicitly campaigns in favour of a second referendum, followed by a victory of the Remain camp in that poll.

Both are improbable. But even then, the reversal of Article 50 would not happen automatically.

It may not even be legally possible.

Even in the unlikely case that the European Court of Justice were to give an opinion on this issue, the final decision does not lie with the British parliament, but with the European Council, which is guided by its own self-interest.

If Brexit cannot technically be reversed, can it be materially altered or softened?

I do not see how this is possible, either, except through a longer transition period. Mrs May’s letter triggering Article 50 laid down two clear conditions: no membership of the customs union and no membership of the single market.

What very few Remainers in the UK seem to realise is that the EU favours a Brexit with no single market and customs union membership, because it makes a difficult negotiating process easier. The degrees of hardness and softness are not unilateral choices to be taken by the UK electorate.

I have argued before that the UK should — and likely will — seek a sufficiently long transitional agreement. It would be sensible to remain a member of the single market and the customs union during this period, simply to buy some time for the flood of legislative and technical changes that Brexit necessitates, and for a bilateral trade deal with the EU to be agreed.

A long transition period is the only way to defuse the dispute about the exit bill. The UK would simply continue to pay into the EU budget during that period.

If the UK election is to have any impact, it will be on the length and nature of this transitional agreement, but not on the Brexit process itself.

Even a landslide victory for Mrs May would have resulted in a longer transitional period than the government previously admitted, for technical reasons. There is no way the prime minister would have chosen a cliff-edge Brexit, because the economic and political consequences would have been too costly. It would have been irresponsible. We saw last week how quickly political fortunes can turn. A transitional period would have been necessary under any scenario. The only conclusion I can draw, therefore, is that the election has changed absolutely nothing for Brexit.

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