The way many politicians talk about Brexit, one could be forgiven for thinking that the process is clearly-defined and straightforward: the government invokes Article 50, and there is then a two year period of negotiations in which all the details are finalised. But that’s a hopeless oversimplification. The two year period is entirely arbitrary; it was included in the clause not because anyone had sat down and worked out how long it would take, but because they needed to include a time frame of some sort, and two years ‘felt’ about right. And I suspect that they didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it either; after all, they never anticipated that anyone would actually be so silly as to trigger Article 50.
The surprising thing is not that some people are now actually questioning whether two years will be long enough; it is that so many are failing to question it, and are assuming that there is some science and thought behind the timetable.
There are other options, of course. Some of the Brexiters (especially those who were never really concerned about the economic consequences of the decision because their opposition to the EU is, and always was, ideological) are starting to feel concerned that attempts might be made to subvert the referendum result, and are thus arguing for a ‘hard’ exit. Under this scenario, the UK could simply repeal the Act which authorised membership in the first place, withdraw from all the institutions, and sort out the consequences afterwards. It would lead to a degree of chaos in the short term, but for those so-minded, that would be a price worth paying. And from their perspective, it would, in any case, be a price paid by someone else – i.e. the population at large.
I don’t know how long the actual formal process will take. There was a report last week that one academic was predicting that the process will take so long and be so complex that it will never actually happen. I think he’s wrong in principle; any structures put together by humans can always be torn apart by them as well and no structures last for ever. I suspect, though, that he may be right in saying that the sort of ‘soft’ exit which the government is seeking may be a more elusive goal than they are currently assuming, and may take longer to bring about.
There is no particular reason for the UK to require a short timescale other than to satisfy the more rabid isolationists; from a more rational perspective, it’s in all our interests to ensure that, if it is really going to happen, it happens in the best and most controlled way possible. What is more likely is that the other 27 members will want it sorted quickly. From their perspective, they are facing a two year period in which a lot of time and energy will be focussed on the needs of one member who wants out, when most of them would prefer to be spending that time and energy on moving the institutions forward to meet the needs of those who want to stay.On that basis, those who are assuming that they can have as much time as they need may turn out to be as mistaken as those who think it can be done sensibly overnight, because both are making one common assumption – that the UK holds the cards and can set the timetable as well as the terms. It’s another variation on the idea that the UK is special and unique – but a rude awakening is the likelier prospect. And with any luck, that rude awakening will come sooner rather than later.