EU finally comes clean on future UK-EU military objectives, but risks remain

By David Banks. This piece first appeared on the Veterans for Britain website and is reproduced with permission.

In a speech in Berlin today, Michel Barnier (the EU’s Brexit negotiator) for the first time explicitly spells out some interpretations over future UK-EU military relations under Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), the new EU policy ambition in this field.  The text can be found here.

Some of these comments are welcome. In particular, in saying “Any voluntary participation of the United Kingdom in European defence will confer rights and obligations in proportion to the level of this participation,” Mr Barnier is indicating that UK participation on an ad hoc basis in missions can generate corresponding engagement at the political level. Clarity is needed on this point, but it does seem that the approach is heading towards a flexible structure rather than seeking to tie the UK down in fixed EU treaty obligations.

Again, Mr Barnier acknowledges that there are several existing models of cooperation and not just the Norway one, a model which is tied into membership of the Single Market. That requirement appears to have been dropped by the Commission. More widely, this may even be the first admission that a special FTA deal is achievable, since several such models do already exist lying between WTO Status and EEA membership.

However, there are also clear remaining issues. While UK membership of the European Defence Agency is ruled out, some sort of structured affiliation is not. Yet the EDA is core to future EU defence integration and formal UK adhesion beyond observer status carries budgetary obligations and political risks.

Also, the EU recognises the UK will continue to play a bilateral and multilateral role, especially through NATO. But PESCO has identified non-NATO multilaterals as targets to come increasingly under the PESCO banner. We also note the cheeky attempt to appropriate the St Mâlo agreement at the very end. The EU has wide eyes and a big appetite in agreements that are not part of the menu.

Tellingly, Barnier is tacitly admitting, in saying that “The British have never wanted to turn the Union into a military power”, that the EU now seeks to do just that.

Major-General Julian Thompson, chairman of Veterans for Britain, said:

“M. Barnier offers a backhanded compliment to the importance of the UK to European Defence – a term which of course is not the same thing as the EU’s precocious military appetite.

“It is not in the UK’s interest to institutionally weld itself to this ‘Security ERM’. Post Brexit, the UK should cooperate in missions and projects of clear joint interest. It is a positive sign that the Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator recognises this prospect.”

Colonel Richard Kemp also of Veterans for Britain said:

“EU defence integration clearly remains a threat to NATO, and to UK multilateralism inside Europe but outside the EU. EU ambitions are extensive and dangerous.”

Referring to the outrageous opening inference of the Brexit vote as a betrayal of the fight against terror, Col Kemp added:

“This is an insult to the electorate of the first order. But then, the European Commission has never understood either democracy or adverse votes.

“The EU has brought a lot of its terror-related problems on itself. In contrast, the UK has been the most capable in defence and security and has been the bulwark of anti-terrorism in Europe.”

Photo by DVIDSHUB

Where our Brexit negotiators are going wrong – and it’s not just fishing!

When anyone says they want “a deep and special relationship you know they are only looking at their side of negotiations and are oblivious of the other side’s position.

The EU isn’t in a position to give us such a relationship. The project must come first – in other words, the first duty of the European Commission and Parliament is to preserve the unity of the remaining 27 members. They don’t want other countries leaving and expecting a special deal.

The UK Government also states that The same rules and laws will apply before and after Brexit. There is nothing wrong in moving the EU acquis across into domestic legislation through the European Union (Withdrawal) bill for areas that apply only within the UK. It is a different matter with any legislation which include a degree of interaction with EU27 – fisheries policy, for example. We may point out that we are maintaining regulatory convergence but the laws are not compatible from the EU prospective because in March 2019, we will no longer be an EU member state.

At the bottom of the majority of EU regulations it states: This Regulation shall be binding in its entirety and directly applicable in all Member States. As we will be no longer a member the regulation is neither binding nor applicable on the UK.

So while the two highlighted statements sound convincing at first glance, they are not and the fact that our negotiating team keeps repeating them shows that in reality, they are very vulnerable.

The Transitional deal

The above comments apply equally to the proposed two year transitional period. Because of the time which has already been lost, many in the establishment are hailing this as an important step forward but in reality, they have failed to appreciate how catastrophic the terms of such a deal are likely to be.

Fishing for Leave believes that only when the negotiations reach the point when a transitional arrangement can be discussed – which David Davis expects us to have reached by end of March 2018 – will it become apparent just how severe the conditions that will be imposed on the UK actually are.

The European Parliament has made its position clear in this document.  There will be no UK representation in any EU institution during that period, but we will have to accept the full rigours of EU institutions, and who is to say it will only last two years? We could well find ourselves no further forward in March 2021. Far from being Brexit, these two years (or perhaps longer) could well be the worst two years of our involvement with the EU project.

Let us consider some of the evidence for this:-

Firstly, from the House of Commons Department for Exiting the EU Committee 25th October 2017 (Our comments in Italics)

Q67            Joanna Cherry: Can I go back to the transitional period or the implementation period?  What is your understanding of the legal basis for a transitional deal or an implementation period?

Mr Davis: The presumption we have been working on is that it comes under the Article 50 proposal.  It was raised with us by the Commission.  The European Parliament sees it in those terms.  I am assuming the Commission legal service does.  But in many ways it is a question almost for the Commission rather than me.

If you are to negotiate, you have to know the legal basis under which you are working and not leave it to the other side.

Q68            Joanna Cherry: Do you have any legal advice of your own as to the basis of a transitional deal or implementation period?

Mr Davis: I am not going to share the legal advice for the reason I gave earlier: that is the convention.  But our belief is that it fits under Article 50.

Q69            Joanna Cherry: Legal advice exists, and it is your belief that it is under Article 50.

Mr Davis: I am not going to be drawn any further on that.  I said I believe it is going to be under Article 50.

As Article 50 comes from the Lisbon Treaty – TEU, it will cease to apply on 30th March 2019, so the transition period can be negotiated under article 50, but the implementation of the transition period will have to be under another EU legal basis.

Q70            Joanna Cherry: Article 50 does not actually say anything about transitional deals or implementation periods.

Mr Davis: Article 50 does not say very much about anything, if you read it.  It is the blandest and unhelpful phrase you are ever likely to come across, but there we are: that is that.

Article 50 is clearly laid out, and does not make reference to a transitional period.

Q71            Joanna Cherry: What it does make clear is that, during any period of deferred withdrawal, the treaties would continue to apply, so if we went into a period of deferred withdrawal under Article 50 we would still be in the single market; we would still be in the customs union; and we would still be under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.  That is correct, isn’t it?

Mr Davis: My response to that is the same as my response to Mr Bone: we are not looking for deferred withdrawal; we are looking for an implementation period.

 If that is the case, whether you call it a transition deal or an implementation period, the bottom line is that it will not be covered by Article 50 because, along with the rest of the EU treaties, it will cease to apply on 29th March 2019

Q72            Joanna Cherry: But if it is the case that, as a matter of law, all you could have under Article 50 was a deferred withdrawal, we would not be leaving on 29th March 2019, would we?

Mr Davis: That is not what we have been negotiating for.  The phrase “deferred withdrawal” has never been used to me by the Commission.  The phrase they use is “transition period”.  Our term of art is “implementation period”.

(FfL believes Joanna Cherry is correct)

Then we move onto who will actually be running the country during the transitional period

Q58            Mr Rees-Mogg: To follow on from Mr Bone’s question, the worry is when we get to 29th March 2019 we stay under the auspices of the European Court; we are still in the customs union; we accept new rules as they come through; and we keep on paying money with the promise of a trade deal on the never‑never.

We are still therefore within the European Union for a further two years.  All that has happened is the endpoint has been delayed and the uncertainty in 2021, which the aim is to avoid, is just as great—but we have stayed in the European Union for two years longer and not achieved what we are aiming for.

Mr Davis: There are ways around that, but, if you forgive me, I am not going to detail them here today.

Q89            Mr Djanogly: During that period, will the UK have to accept new EU laws made during that period?

Mr Davis: One of the practical points of this, which anybody who has dealt with the European Union knows—as you will have done, I guess—is that it takes two to five years from inception to outcome for laws to make it through the process.

Anything that would have impact during those two years we are talking about will already have been agreed with us in advance.  Anything that happens during it will be something for subsequent discussion as to whether we propose to follow it or not.

This is another area where FfL believes Davis is wrong. As far as we understand things,  it is the acquis which has passed onto the UK statute books on or before 29th March 2019 that will be covered by the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, not work in progress, that is moved across to domestic legislation, and as cherry picking is supposedly not on, Davis’s answer is unusual, and Rees-Mogg and Djanogly were in order to ask those questions.

Michel Barnier’s comments to House of Lords Committee 12th July 2017

  1. Barnier made it quite clear that the transition period would see us under the thumb of the ECJ:-

“You talked about the risk of divergence. It is a risk, not a certainty. The repeal Bill is meant to bring EU legislation into British laws, and that is very good and important, but what will happen D plus 10 or D plus 20? How will your law and your standards develop? ……

That period will be set in a framework, a transition period, and then there will be a new relationship. I cannot give you a time more precisely than that. I cannot even tell you the nature of it. All that I can say—and I can say this in the name of the EU—is that during that period we will maintain, in relation to the internal market, the regulatory architecture and supervision of the Court of Justice.”

The European Parliament said exactly the same thing three months earlier:-

From European Parliament resolution of 5th April 2017

Transitional arrangements

  1. Believes that transitional arrangements ensuring legal certainty and continuity can only be agreed between the European Union and the United Kingdom if they contain the right balance of rights and obligations for both parties and preserve the integrity of the European Union’s legal order, with the Court of Justice of the European Union responsible for settling any legal challenges; believes, moreover, that any such arrangements must also be strictly limited both in time – not exceeding three years – and in scope, as they can never be a substitute for European Union membership;

Michel Barnier raised further complications about the transitional deal:-

  • We will be able to apply absolutely no pressure on the EU during this time.

Speech by Michel Barnier at the press conference following the third round of Article 50 negotiations with the United Kingdom

Brussels, 31st August 2017

“…but it also wants to have these standards recognised automatically in the EU. That is what UK papers ask for. This is simply impossible.”

  • Even a transitional deal would require a treaty

Speech by Michel Barnier in front of the Committees of Foreign Affairs and the Committees of European Affairs of the Italian Parliament

Rome, 21st September 2017

The dialogue we are having here today – as in all national parliaments – is essential because our future partnership with the United Kingdom, and its legal text in the form of a treaty, will have to be ratified by you, when the time comes.  Once again, the future of the Union is our priority, not Brexit

Finally, the implication for fisheries

FfL believes the Government is heading into uncharted waters; creating problems for which they and not the EU are responsible.

1) Article 50 takes us cleanly out of the EU and the CFP, with no legal repercussions.

2) The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill takes us back in all but name if we include the fisheries regulations of the acquis. What we have just left, our own UK Parliament intends fully to take us back into again.

3) The proposed two year transitional/implementation period will require a treaty and during that time, we will be subject to the CFP.

Furthermore, FfL believe that it wouldn’t just be fisheries which would be affected by this “out and in” process, which could cause us to fall foul of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, a notoriously grey area, which could bog down the system with lengthy and complex legal cases.

While it is the intention of HMG to produce a Fisheries Bill, we don’t know what will be in the Bill. Can it be made watertight? This could be difficult in view of the EU stating there can be  no cherry picking in any transitional arrangement. We can be sure that the EU would  not allow the present fishery arrangements to be exempted from such a deal and worse still, EU control of our fisheries could become permanent if the Government does not change course and exempt the EU fisheries regulation from the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.

Half way there, but have we even started?

Last week marked the half way point between 23rd June 2016 – that euphoric day when we voted to leave the EU – and the actual day on which we will actually leave:- March 29th 2019.

On Friday, Mrs May confirmed that she plans to set the date for our departure from the EU into law. There will be no slippage and no turning back. This comes against a background of growing concern that Brexit could be stopped.  Today, Lord Kerr, a former UK ambassador to the EU, insisted that the Article 50 process could be stopped or reversed. No way, replied Mrs May. Her proposed law will make it irreversible.

This is good news for those of us who fought so hard to secure that historic victory in June last year. I have dealt with more than my fair share of correspondence recently from people concerned that the government is going to back track. My views have not changed since writing this article that Mrs May and the Tories, whatever side they supported during the referendum campaign, have no choice but to deliver Brexit because failure to do so would provoke the worst crisis in the party since the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846.  Backtracking would be suicidal. Thankfully, a lust for power is deeply entrenched into the Conservatives’ psyche and given their shock at last June’s General Election result, they know that delivering a good Brexit is essential if they are to avoid  electoral meltdown in 2022.

Probe a bit deeper, however, and the picture is not quite so rosy.  In spite of the Brexit vote last year, as  Veterans for Britain has been keen to point out, the Government has taken us deeper into the EU’s military integration process, with there being considerable support to signing us up to PESCO, the Permanent Structured Cooperation of the EU’s external action force – set up in reality to undermine and replace NATO. Brexit can only mean Brexit if we are completely detached militarily and we can but hope that even at this 11th hour, Gavin Williamson, the new defence secretary who has little experience of military matters, will listen to those members of our armed forces who know what they are talking about and step back from this process.

Sadly, of our daily newspapers, only the Express  has so far been willing to cover this disturbing development. However, to repeat, even if Williamson’s predecessor Michael Fallon was able to get away with betraying the UK’s armed forces without being subject to too much scrutiny, it will be out of the bag by 2022 and the Tories will reap the whirlwind electorally.

Equally disturbing is this statement from the Prime Minister’s office which was passed to one of our supporters. Note the section he has highlighted in yellow:-  It also means that the existing body of EU law will become British law. So this provides certainty and clarity for all businesses and families across the country from the very moment we leave the EU.”

This is true when it comes to legislation which would only be applied internally. For instance,  the rules governing bathing water have been devised by the EU. It is no great problem for us to continue to use them over the Brexit period. They work satisfactorily so even if they could be improved, there is no urgency until we have settled down as a sovereign, independent country.

It is a different matter, however, when it comes to legislation which involves the relationship of an independent UK with the rest of the EU. We have previously highlighted the fallacy of this approach with regards fisheries, but it also applies to the general question of trade. the PM appears to be repeating the mistake that because our regulations will be aligned with those of the EU up to Brexit day, some sort of seamless trade arrangement should not be a problem,

The transitional arrangement which she seeks is essentially based on this misunderstanding – we can be essentially honorary EU members for two years while a bespoke long-term deal is sorted out. We would obey all the rules and pay into the EU’s coffers without any representation. Such a deal would be unacceptable to many Tory backbenchers, not to mention the wider Brexit-supporting community. Thankfully, although the penny seems not to have dropped in Westminster, the EU has said it is a non-runner.

The European Parliament  set out its position, where, among other things,  it “reaffirms that membership of the internal market and the customs union entails acceptance of the four freedoms, the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union, general budgetary contributions and adherence to the European Union’s common commercial policy”  – in other words, you’re either in or you’re out. To repeat, it’s not about regulatory convergence but the legal relationship of a future EU-UK relationship. We will no longer be subject to the EU’s treaties, Article 50 is quite clear about this. We need to seek a new legal basis and any transitional agreement would require almost as complicated a legal ratification process than a long-term bespoke relationship.

The EU’s guidelines also say, “To the extent necessary and legally possible, the negotiations may also seek to determine transitional arrangements which are in the interest of the union and, as appropriate, to provide for bridges towards the foreseeable framework for the future relationship in the light of progress made. Any such transitional arrangements must be clearly defined, limited in time and subject to effective enforcement mechanisms. Should a time-limited prolongation of Union Acquis be considered, this would require existing Union regulatory supervisory, judiciary and enforcement instruments and structures to apply.”

This affirm that the EU will allow us to go ahead with a transitional deal, but it must be on the EU’s terms and subject to the appropriate legal processes being completed in time, which looks very doubtful. In other words, to repeat, it’s a non-starter and a red herring.

So until there is a change in mindset among UK’s negotiators we will continue to go round in circles. Last Friday also saw the usual Barnier/Davis press conference following the latest round of “negotiations” and there is still no indication from the EU side that they feel ready to start trade talks as insufficient progress has been made on the three critical issues of the Irish border, the rights of EU citizens resident in the EU and the “divorce bill.” Agreement must be reached within two weeks or trade talks will not be starting any time soon. Sadly, David Davis’s response was to call for the EU to show “flexibility  and imagination.” Unfortunately, the EU’s legal structure doesn’t allow it to be flexible. Mr Davis can repeat this little phrase as much as he likes. It will not make a shred of difference.

So at this point when we have just reached the half way point to Brexit, it is sobering to think that this milestone has been reached with the two sides so far apart and so little real progress made. Not what any of us expected on that incredible morning when the result of the referendum was announced. A Brexit of sorts will almost certainly happen on 29th March 2019, but unless the government raises its game, we could find ourselves, more by default rather than design, either crashing out following a breakdown of the talks or suffering a Brexit that isn’t really Brexit in any meaningful way.

No surprise, no progress.

Theresa May travelled to the European Council meeting last week in the hope of persuading the leaders of the other 27 member states that sufficient progress had been made on the three sticking points of the Irish border, the “divorce bill” alias the EU’s exit payment and the rights of EU citizens living in the UK. Any gambler could comfortably have bet on her being disappointed. The language on both sides was very polite, but all that has been agreed is to talk about talks.

If Mrs May or other members of her government  had any hopes that a “divide and conquer” strategy would work, going over the head of Michel Barnier from the Commission, they must now be realising that it won’t work. For all the divisions within the EU, some of which we have mentioned here, when it comes to Brexit, there is unity. No trade talks until sufficient progress has been made on the three sticking points.

France’s President Macron said that there was still much work to be done on the financial commitment before trade talks can begin, adding: “We are not halfway there.” Such a statement can easily be married with the more positive tone from Council President Donald Tusk, whose denial that the talks were deadlocked contradicted a statement to this effect from Michel Barnier.

For anyone still muddled by contradictory reports in the media who is seeking final confirmation that the EU does not consider sufficient progress to have been made, this statement from the European Council says it all.

Mrs May is currently between a rock and a hard place. She may or may not decide to listen to the voices from within her own party telling her to walk away altogether, but one thing is for sure – she cannot stop the Brexit clock. Her loyalty to her own party cannot be questioned and she knows that any attempt to backpedal would result in the Tories tearing themselves to pieces.

On the other hand, she cannot ignore the concerns expressed by businesses. It’s not just government ministers and bloggers who are warning about aircraft not being able to take off after Brexit. Some UK airlines are preparing to warn their customers that flights booked after March 2019 may not take off and they will not pay compensation if planes are grounded. Meanwhile, the UK Chamber of Shipping has expressed similar concerns about the problems UK ports will face if there is no deal, calling such an outcome an “absolute catastrophe”.

EU sources continue to express their belief that eventually a deal will be struck, even though some people such as Owen Paterson, a former cabinet minister, have said that no deal is “inevitable.”

Who will be right? Unfortunately, Mrs May’s charm offensive has achieved little.  The EU is a very rules-based organisation and it is going to stick to the letter in the forthcoming negotiations. I may be wrong, and would be happy to be eating humble pie in 18 months, but I fear that unless our side really gets to grips with how the EU works, Mr Paterson may end up being correct by default.

Cough, cough, but no new insights on Brexit

There were at least two statements about Brexit during the Tory conference which show that some at least within the party appreciate the seismic change that Brexit involves. Firstly, Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, said that Brexit was “one of the most challenging tasks ever faced by a peacetime government in Britain.”  He is quite right there. Secondly, Jacob Rees-Mogg  challenged Theresa May’s assertion that her government would not be “defined by Brexit.” It “is the defining political issue of our time and and to pretend otherwise…is absurd”, he continued, comparing the changes Brexit would bring to the Great Reform Bill or the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Again, all well and good, but we were expecting something more from the Prime Minister in her keynote speech, particularly more detail on what the route to Brexit was going to look like. Sadly, we were to be disappointed.

Mrs May reiterated that we would leave the EU in March 2019. No back-pedalling here or she is toast – and she knows it. She then continued “I know some find the negotiations frustrating, but if we approach them in the right spirit – in a spirit of cooperation and friendship, with our sights set firmly on the future – I am confident we will find a deal that works for Britain and Europe too. And let’s be clear about the agreement we seek.”

Oh no! Next came that awful phrase again “deep and special” – twice, in fact.  Please bury this one, Mrs May. It’s just as bad as “strong and stable” which the voters found so unconvincing in June.  It doesn’t reflect reality and sounds rather soppy. Mind you, what came next as she fleshed out this overworked cliché sounded rather familiar too:- “A partnership that allows us to continue to trade and cooperate with each other, because we see shared challenges and opportunities ahead. But a partnership that ensures the United Kingdom is a sovereign nation once again. A country in which the British people are firmly in control.” Once again, her statement begs the obvious question, “yes, but how are we going to get there?”

What is more, Mrs May ignored the unfortunate reality that negotiations on this partnership are not even going to be started any time soon. Yesterday, the European Parliament passed a resolution which stated that the “absence of any clear proposals has seriously impeded the negotiations”. The Parliament is “of the opinion that in the fourth round of negotiations sufficient progress has not yet been made” in the three key areas. Of course, the resolution is significant but merely a non-binding expression of opinion, not having been introduced by the EU Commission.

Maybe a speech at a party conference is  not the best occasion for announcing a new initiative on Brexit to unblock the talks, but when exactly will the moment come? Her words on Brexit today could have been cut and pasted from the Florence speech, which was received politely by the EU’s leading lights who then pointed out that it gave little idea about the sort of deal Mrs May is seeking, both for the interim and longer term.

To be fair to the Prime Minister, she wasn’t at her best, having to deal with a persistent cough and – as if that was not enough – a moronic intruder who somehow gatecrashed the meeting, handed her a P45 saying “Boris made me do it.” However, the issue goes deeper – and affects not only the Prime Minister but, it seems, a considerable number of Members of Parliament – they still fail to understand what the EU project is all about.

During the German General Election, one politician, when asked about Brexit, said he regretted that the UK always viewed the EU as an economic rather than a political project, this failing to see its value – at least in his eyes. This man, whether by accident or not, has hit the nail on the head. It explains why we are  getting two different pictures from the UK and the EU side whenever they report on the current negotiations.

To put it simply, the UK negotiators (and, I would suspect, Mrs May), are viewing  these negotiations through this same historic mindset. The EU must want a trade deal with us because surely it would be foolish not to. Look at how their businesses would suffer without one. Therefore, if we complete the repatriation of the acquis by Brexit day, there should be no reason why should we not trade as before – well, more or less – as there will still be regulatory convergence.

The EU’s reply, reiterated ad nauseam by Michel Barnier, is that we will be a third country on 29th March 2019. We will be outside the EU’s political bloc, whose ongoing integrity matters far more than trade deals. If the EU was prepared to reduce Greece to poverty – and Greece wasn’t even talking about leaving the EU – why should it put trade before politics in the Brexit negotiations? To repeat, for us, it’s all about trade whereas for the EU, it’s all about politics. Even discussion of any interim arrangement needs to be viewed in that light.  The EU simply will not let us enjoy two years as an honorary member of the club while outside the jurisdiction of the ECJ  and refusing to continue to abide by the EU’s free movement rules. It is another terrible and overused cliché, but only when our politicians can learn to see how the EU project is understood by the likes not just of Barnier, Juncker and Verhofstadt, but also of national leaders such as Merkel, Macron and even Varadkar – and realise that they are all more or less of the same opinion – will we be able to escape the “having cake but eating it” mindset which has so bedevilled the negotiations from the very start.

There are grounds for hope that at least some MPs are belatedly beginning to understand the nature of the EU, so I have been told, but they need to spread the word among their colleagues pretty quickly if we are to have any hope at all of leaving the EU in March 2019 with any sort of deal worthy of the name.

 

Photo by EU2017EE

Paved with good intentions?

If Mrs May hoped that her speech in Florence would unblock the Brexit talks, she must be feeling somewhat disappointed. Yesterday, Donald Tusk, the President of the EU Council politely welcomed its “constructive and more realistic tone” but then went on to say, “As you know, we will discuss our future relations with the United Kingdom once there is so-called ‘sufficient progress’. The two sides are working hard at it. But if you asked me and if today Member States asked me, I would say there is no ‘sufficient progress’ yet.”

Mrs May’s speech, as we mentioned recently, was  optimistic in tone and stated very clearly that the EU had never really worked for us. It “never felt to us like an integral part of our national story” although she stressed her enthusiasm to work closely with it once we leave.

But what exactly would this new partnership look like? “The question is then how we get there: how we build a bridge from where we are now to where we want to be,” said the Prime Minister. Unfortunately, she failed to answer her own question, apart from stating that a transitional period would be needed and ruling out ongoing membership of the European Economic Area, even in the short term.

The speech encapsulated the problem with which the Government is struggling. Like Boris Johnson, Mrs May sounded very hopeful about the UK’s prospects post-Brexit. She is right to do so. We potentially have a great future as an independent nation. The problem is reaching this point with our economy intact. Daniel Hannan has recently joined in the trade debate. enthusing about the prospects for free trade once we’re out of the EU, but we keep coming back to the same question:- how are we going to leave?

It isn’t helping that our team, led by David Davis, accepted the EU’s preconditions that discussions on a wider future relationship, including trade, cannot begin until “sufficient progress” has been made on the Irish border issue,  the “divorce bill” and the rights of EU citizens currently living in the UK. Mrs May stressed that the EU needed to “be creative” in working out its future relationship with the EU, while David Davis insisted that there should be  “no excuses for standing in the way of progress”.

But even if the outstanding issues are resolved, and there is little sign of any meaningful agreement as yet, what sort of agreement exactly does the UK want? Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, has called  for  “a moment of clarity” from the UK’s side. He is quite right to ask this question as there are plenty of us this side of the Channel who can’t wait to see the UK safely out of the EU but at the same time are in a quandary regarding how the Government proposes to  get us there. The hints in Mrs May’s speech about the sort of transitional arrangement she would like suggest somehow more or less staying in the EU but somehow not being subject to the European Court of Justice – in other words, still in “having cake and eating it ” territory and thus unacceptable to the EU.

Scan through our website and read the comments on earlier articles and you will find a few people doubting if Brexit will ever happen and fearful that Mrs May is going to betray us and call the whole thing off.  While fully appreciating the anxiety of such people, I do not believe this to be remotely possible. The slightest hint of back-pedalling on Brexit and Mrs May would immediately face a leadership challenge. What is more, the Tories garnered much of the leave vote in last June’s  General Election because they promised to deliver on Brexit. Following the better-than-expected showing by Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, a botched or half-baked Brexit means electoral meltdown for the Tories and they know it.

Mrs May and her team are therefore under great pressure. There is no turning back, whatever some sections of the press may say – or indeed, secretly wish for. One possible scenario is that Mrs May and David Davis may pull out of the talks, blaming EU intransigence and falling back on the “no deal is better than a bad deal” position – in other words, the so-called WTO option. Iain Duncan Smith, among others, has been urging the government to prepare for no deal.

It probably won’t come to this, but we can expect a rocky road ahead in the next few weeks, especially as much of the business world does not share the optimism of Mr Duncan Smith or Professor Patrick Minford that the WTO option, coupled with a more or less total elimination of tariffs, is going to be beneficial. In the long term it may be, but the shock it would deliver to UK businesses in the immediate post-Brexit period would be immense with, among other things,  the likelihood of a massive stack of lorries on the M20 building up the moment we leave, unable to clear French customs due to a lack of the necessary paperwork.

So the Brexit clock keeps ticking and M. Barnier keeps reminding us that we will become a “Third Country” in just over 18 months time. Given it’s now more than 15 months since the Brexit vote, we are only six weeks or so away from the halfway point between the referendum and the result we sought. We can but hope that some sort of clarification or change of tack will take place soon or the dream for which so many of us campaigned for so long may turn out, in the short term at least, to be more of a nightmare. The road to Hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. The road to Brexit may turn out to be very similar.