Confusion abounds in Europe. Is the EU facing a Blitz-Brexit or tedious negotiations? It is still unclear just what London wants and how preparations are going.
"Can we simplify?" Michael Gove asked the newly formed Brexit Committee in the British House of Commons. Whitehall officials, he says, are making things unnecessarily complicated. For that reason he has proposed a "quickie divorce" from the EU: "What if we were to determine to simply leave the European Union, to trigger Article 50 and to conclude the bare minimum in order to leave? What would Article 50 actually require me to agree?" Gove is one of the leading "Brexiteers" and hopes his proposal will end debates about the factual and strategic aimlessness of the British government reported in the media this week.
Is a quick Brexit an option?
An internal memo from economic advisers at Deloitte, a consulting firm, made headlines early this week. In it, experts in the service of the British government stated that officials in London still had no recognizable plan as to preparations for complex Brexit negotiations, adding that the government still needs to hire some 30,000 civil servants to deal with them. Pressure on Prime Minister Theresa May to provide some direction for the negotiations, which must begin by April, 2017, is mounting.
Michael Gove would like to just cut through this knot, in his words using "Occam's razor," meaning to take the simplest possible approach: He envisions that London could forego transitional solutions, accept the economic ramifications and leave the single market and the customs union. It is a proposal that high-level officials view as less than ideal: It would be better to negotiate the exit and the future relationship with the EU at the same time, said Sir Simon Fraser.
Fraser, too, confirmed that the government was still floundering without a plan when he addressed the parliamentary committee: "[The government] is still in information-gathering mode and is not yet at the point of integrating that into a central plan." The government will have to "put on the after-burners" if it wants to trigger Article 50 next spring: "Not enough progress has been made - more needs to happen - and time is relatively short."
On the other hand, during Prime Minister Questions in the House of Commons, Theresa May reiterated that she would not give any advance information about negotiations. Saying that preparations are proceeding as planned and that talk of chaos in London was inaccurate.
Boris just keeps being Boris
Her foreign secretary, however, notorious chatterbox Boris Johnson, used a two-day meeting with his European counterparts as an opportunity to create renewed confusion about his government's position: In an interview with a Czech newspaper, he said that he assumes Britain will leave the customs union, yet continue to trade in the single market.
Moreover, he once again repeated that freedom of movement for people had nothing to do with the single market, saying that any suggestion thereof was "bullshit." The statement drew admonition from European Parliament negotiator Guy Verhofstadt: "I can't wait to negotiate with Boris Johnson, so that I can read him Article 3 of the Treaty of Rome," which clearly defines the connection between the two issues.
In a BBC interview, Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem added that, "He's saying things that are intellectually impossible, politically unavailable, so I think he's not offering the British people a fair view of what is available and what can be achieved in these negotiations." Dijsselbloem, who is the president of the Eurogroup, once again warned of the economic repercussions: "It will be a lose-lose situation, so it would be best if all parties would set aside feelings and attempt to come to an agreement which will do the least amount of harm to both sides."
Seeking a reasonable solution
"We have to stick to the logic that if we leave the path of reason we will have to live with the consequences," warned Maria Demertzis of the Brussels-based think tank Bruegel. She observes the ongoing Brexit chaos with a touch of irony, saying that whatever people are promising right now is guaranteed not to happen.
"Predictions no longer have any value." Nevertheless, in speaking of the Blitz-Brexit model, she says: "It is a mystery as to how a politician will be able to sell that to his or her constituents. We really shouldn't wish for something like that. Although anything is possible at this point."
But Gove and Johnson's ideas appear to have little to do with voters' desires. A new poll conducted by the British social research institute NetCen showed that 90 percent of those polled said they wanted to remain in the single market and the customs union. And 49 percent of Britons are even prepared to continue to accept the freedom of movement of people as the price for access to the European market.
Trust in Britain's justice system
"If the appeal to the British Supreme Court should fail, then Parliament must be brought into the Brexit process." Maria Demertzis pins her hopes on democratic tradition and the power of the British justice system. For then, every parliamentarian could add his or her amendments to the Brexit decision, which would in turn drag out negotiations. "It would then become practically impossible for May to meet the March deadline."
At the moment, the entire Brexit debate seems to be in utter disarray. Four months after the referendum there is still no clear plan for Britain's departure, and opinions as to just how it is to take shape are contradictory. "The rest of Europe is waiting for Britain, and uncertainty is growing," that is causing economic and political damage. Further, just how negotiations will end, and what goals will be pursued, will depend heavily on next year's European elections: "Elections, especially in France and Germany, will be decisive. If anything goes wrong, anything is possible."