Theresa May will have to negotiate an interim agreement on Britain’s future relationship with the EU even if the terms of Brexit can be agreed within two years, a former top civil servant at the Foreign Office has said.
Sir Simon Fraser said the UK would have to accept that the EU will impose an economic and political price tag for Brexit, partly to make it clear to other EU states that “it is not a good idea to leave”.
It was inconceivable that parliament could be prevented from voting on the terms of Brexit before 2019, he said. This would be two years after the prime minister has said article 50 will be triggered, beginning the formal process of leaving the EU, which is meant to be completed in that timeframe.
Fraser, who supported remain in the EU referendum, was the permanent undersecretary at the FCO from 2010 to 2015. His comments are the most detailed he has made on the likely course of negotiations since the Brexit vote on 23 June.
Although the government’s negotiating strategy has not been agreed, he said it was clear that the UK was heading for the “harder end of a Brexit”, due to the primacy being given to UK border controls and parliamentary sovereignty.
Speaking at the Institute for Government, Fraser said it was inevitable that negotiations over Britain’s future political and economic relationship with the EU, including access to the single market and security and foreign policy considerations, would take longer than two years.
“This will inevitably mean some sort of interim relationship between leaving and establishing the long-term, permanent relationship,” he said.
He said parliament would seek to be involved in any decision. “It does seem to me that government does have a responsibility to make sure that parliament is properly informed about what is happening,” Fraser said.
“We have got to have a democratic process around this … I do not understand how we could go though a multi-year negotiation of at least two years to determine the terms on how we leave the EU, and then do that without at least some sort of parliamentary vote on that.”
Fraser also supported to parliament’s right to be involved, saying a vote was going to be required at the most basic level. “If you were in a commercial organisation, you would never commit yourself now to accepting the terms of a negotiation on a deal that is going to be finished in two years’ time.”
He said he did not expect the EU to give an early signal on whether it would give the UK an interim agreement, since this would represent a concession. But an unfavourable rupture was not in either side’s economic interest, Fraser said.
“I am not a catastrophist, but let us be clear: this is going to be an incredibly difficult, tough and complex negotiation. One of the objectives of the EU side is to make it absolutely clear to anyone else thinking of leaving the EU that this is not a good idea.
“For them, it must be absolutely clear that leaving the EU there has to be a price tag attached to that, and we are going to have accept that in terms of our economic position in relationship to the single market and in terms of our political relationship.
“We will have less automatic involvement in the future. That is inevitable.”
If the UK did fail to reach an agreement on its separation terms, further negotiations on a trading relationship with the single market would be significantly harder, Fraser said.
He said if the UK was not able to strike such a deal, and instead chose an arrangement based on the World Trade Organisation relationship with the EU, “that would be very worrying for the UK economy”.
“We would lose the automatic tariff-free access to the EU single market, and inward investment in the UK could be affected. A lot of investment in the UK was done with the specific objective of gaining access to the European market – that was clearly the understanding,” he said.
“If we go to less favourable terms of trade, then the context of business investment is changed. Personally, I think it is a scenario we should seek to avoid.”
His assumption was that the government would negotiate “some sort of continuation of our current access to the single market, rather than the negotiation of a completely new agreement and arrangement.”
Fraser said the government’s “great repeal bill”, which is due to be introduced by ministers when article 50 is triggered, provided a potential structure for an interim agreement, since it would translate EU law into UK law, “giving us the legal basis to continue that existing relationship on the basis of the content of existing law”.