Article 50, providing for Brexit, will be triggered by the end of March next year, Theresa May has promised. Two years after it is triggered, Britain will find itself outside the European Union, unless there is unanimous agreement among the other member states to extend the time limit.
Contrary to popular perceptions, article 50 inaugurates a withdrawal process, not a trade agreement. It will involve negotiating essentially technical issues, though important ones – such as the rights of British citizens in the EU and of EU citizens in the UK – and can be achieved within the two-year limit.
Article 50 does allow for a shadow negotiation on trade matters. But, clearly, the EU cannot conclude a trade agreement with another country until that country ceases to be a member, and it is highly unlikely that a detailed trade agreement can be achieved within two years. When, in 1985, Greenland – whose population is smaller than that of Uxbridge, and whose one staple industry is fishing – withdrew, an agreement took three years to negotiate.
In any case, EU procedures for ratifying most trade agreements are far more stringent than for ratifying a withdrawal agreement, which requires merely a qualified majority in the council and a majority in the European parliament. A trade agreement would probably require unanimity in the council, a majority in the European parliament, and also ratification in national parliaments as well as in some regional parliaments – for example, those of Flanders and Wallonia. That involves 36 legislatures, each of which has a veto.If all this proves to be the case - and I have no reason to doubt that it will - it may be many years before the detailed implications of Brexit for trade and movement of labour become apparent. It also implies, I suspect, that some kind of interim trade arrangement needs to be in place for 2019 onwards until a full trade agreement can be negotiated and put in place.
Do you suppose that Messrs Johnson, Fox and Davis understand all this? No, me neither ...