30 Mar 2016

Fraser Nelson, you've got it wrong and Gus O'Donnell got it right

Fraser Nelson has published a piece in the Spectator today in which he declares Lord Gus O’Donnell was misleading the public with his comments about the time it would take to negotiate a new agreement with the EU.
Nelson states that O’Donnell made the point it would take more than two years to negotiate the terms of the UK’s exit from the EU and that the deadline could only be prolonged, in Nelson’s words, ‘with hard bargaining from hostile partners’. Nelson then declares that there’s only one problem with O’Donnell’s argument, ‘it’s nonsense’.
The problem however is with Fraser Nelson’s argument, because O’Donnell was absolutely right on this.
It’s a fact that once notification has been given to the European Commission that the UK is leaving the EU, as set down in Article 50 of the consolidated treaties, only two years is guaranteed for negotiation of a new post-Brexit relationship. That duration can only be extended through the unanimous agreement of all member states and the UK. If there is no unanimity, the formal negotiation ends after two years and the UK ceases to be a member of the EU. O’Donnell didn’t stray from this.
It is Nelson who is misleading people with his laughable argument that the UK can take all the time it wants to leave the EU. He’s right that Britain could give its notification to leave at any time we choose. But he claims if we want six years before leaving we just give notice after four years and that, ‘The two-year period is a minimum, which Sir Gus is misrepresenting as a maximum’.
What Nelson is ignoring or doesn’t understand, is that there would be no formal negotiation with the EU regarding the new post-Brexit relationship. So this hypothetical four-year hiatus that he puts forward would be dead time with no movement towards Brexit. What would be the point of that? He’s trying to separate the notice period and the negotiation timetable, when they are the same thing, in an effort to prop up the Vote Leave ‘Project Fear’ narrative. And he is, as a Europhile, happily damaging the leave side in the process.
If you’re reading this, Fraser, until the Commission receives Britain’s notice to withdraw from the EU, it would not begin discussions between the 27 other member states to agree a common negotiating position for the bloc. It stands to reason it couldn’t do so because it wouldn’t know what the future situation might be regarding matters on trade, directives in force, the economy, other agreements being brokered with third countries etc. Your attempt to land a blow on O’Donnell only makes you look ill-informed and ignorant of the process.
Consider this. One thing that has always been an issue is that Britain cannot not force any formal negotiation without giving notice to leave. All Britain can (and should) do is speak to other member states on a bilateral basis to get a feel for what they want from a new agreement and what they are willing to give. That could realistically take 9-12 months to do properly, to help Britain formulate its own position for the formal negotiation.
But nothing can be discussed formally with the EU as an entity until it has an agreed common position – which could (and likely will) include things some member states won’t want and exclude other things that they do. Indeed, that’s the problem with compromise and supposed shared sovereignty and part of the reason we should be leaving.
So while Fraser Nelson pontificates that the EU wouldn’t have a gun to our head on the negotiation, and that the two-year period is only a notice period - and not also the formal negotiation window it is, which can be kept to two years if even a single EU member state refuses to extend it - he is wrong and Gus O’Donnell is right.