Article 50 says our exit deal must take account of the “framework” for our future EU relationship. But how detailed is a framework? This is a bit like asking “how long is a piece of string”?

The success of the Brexit process hangs on the answer to the question. Unless the framework of a future trade deal is meaty, Theresa May will find it nigh impossible to sign a deal. We will then crash out of the EU and suffer the hardest, most destructive type of Brexit.

So much is at stake over this seemingly arcane point because the EU is expected to insist that we pay up to €60 billion to exit the bloc. This is to take account of our share of liabilities for things like pensions and ongoing projects. 

This number could be exaggerated. But it is hard to imagine Tory hardline Brexiters allowing the prime minister to hand over even a few tens of billions to Brussels unless she is also able to secure a commitment for at least half-decent access to the single market. The talks would then blow up and May would carry out her threat to quit the EU without a deal.

The government’s official answer to this problem is that it wants to conclude a new trade deal with the EU on the same two-year timetable that it reaches a divorce deal. The snag is that hardly any “expert” thinks this is possible. Nailing down an ambitious agreement – which would probably need to be approved by all 27 other countries and maybe their parliaments too – might take several more years.

Despite stories about a split between the European Commission and the European Parliament over whether the divorce talks and new deal negotiations should run in parallel or in sequence, the two agree on this point. Michel Barnier, the Commission’s chief negotiator, and Guy Verhofstadt, the Parliament’s chief negotiator, also accept that the divorce talks must take account of the framework for our future relationship.

So the real game will be over how much detail can be stuffed into this framework, which only needs super-majority approval rather than unanimous agreement by the other 27 countries. If it’s a skimpy little thing, May will struggle to convince her party that it’s worth the paper it’s written on. But if it’s a substantial document – with sections on tariffs, customs, non-tariff barriers, migration, competition policy and so forth – that will start to carry conviction.

Of course, a lot of detail on its own won’t be enough. If there’s devil in the detail, the hardliners may still object and we would still crash out with potentially disastrous consequences.

by Hugo Dixon | 01.02.2017

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