The UK is due to leave the EU on March 29 next year – but nobody knows what is going to happen on a raft on critical issues.
It is not just the political process that is cloaked in uncertainty. There are big questions affecting the economy, national security, trade and devolution.
The House of Commons Library has provided an analysis which demonstrates just how little the country knows about the epic changes that are heading its way.
These are the issues that will confront decision-makers in the days and months ahead, and will drive the debates which could determine the future of Wales’ relationship with not just Europe but its fellow UK nations.
Here are 12 key areas rife with uncertainty
1. We don’t know how many billions of pounds will be spent on the divorce
The Treasury has estimated the exit bill could be around £35bn to £39bn. To put it in perspective, the Welsh Government’s budget for 2019-20 is £17bn.
But the Commons Library team point out that “the actual final cost of the settlement to the UK is unknown”, and nor is it clear for how long payments will have to be made.
They state: “The amount paid by the UK will be based on the actual outcome of EU budgets, rather than the forecasts used by HM Treasury and the [Office for Budget Responsibility] to produce estimates. While it is expected that 70% of the settlement will have been paid by 2022, some annual payments may extend until the 2060s.”
2. We don’t know how vital trade links will be affected by Brexit
The UK benefits from trade agreements between the EU and other countries. There are understood to be arrangements with 88 countries that account for 13% of UK trade.
We don’t yet know whether all these trade deals will continue to apply to the UK after Brexit.
The UK wants to strike free trade agreements with non-EU countries but these may take years to agree and it is impossible to know the scope of potential deals until Britain’s long-term trading relationship with the remaining 27 members states has been agreed. The EU is unlikely to look favourably on proposals which would give the UK advantageous access to its markets while leaving Britain free to gain a competitive edge with the rest of the world, and formal trade negotiations will only start once we are out of the union.
3. We don’t know how much security cooperation will be possible post-Brexit
The UK participates in a raft of measures to protect national security and ensure criminals face justice. These include the European Arrest Warrant (EAW) which facilitates extradition between member states; the sharing of passenger details compiled by airlines; an electronic criminal record checks system; and participation in the Europol law enforcement agency.
It is unclear whether Britain will be able to secure special access to such programmes. The UK has been told it won’t be able to participate in the EAW because it will be outside the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice; it could lose access to EU databases and a further challenge is that some member states have constitutions which prohibit the extradition of their nationals.
4. We don’t know the status of UK nationals who go to the EU after Brexit
It is not known whether people from the UK who want to live and work in the EU will enjoy a special status or be treated just like citizens of any other third country. It seems unlikely we can expect favourable treatment because the UK Cabinet has agreed there will be no preference for EU workers after Brexit.
There is also a lack of clarity about what UK citizens already living in the EU need to do. Britain has set out how EU citizens can obtain “settled status” but, as the Commons Library analysts note, “the EU27 have not reciprocated by setting out a detailed process for UK nationals to register their status”.
5. We don’t know what level of tariffs will be slapped on food
Farming communities across Wales are exceptionally vulnerable. Welsh MPs recently reported that “over 80% of food and animal exports, including over 90% of exports of meat, dairy and eggs, and animal feed, go to the EU”.
Securing a trade deal is vital to avoid punitive tariffs.
The Commons Library notes: “The average charge imposed by the EU on agricultural produce that is not granted preferential access to the European market is 13.6% but can be up to 67% for some meat products.”
The UK Government wants access to markets for fisheries products to be agreed in the future economic partnership with the EU but insists that this is a separate matter to the intensely controversial issue of boats’ access to waters. It stated in its White Paper: “As an independent coastal state, we will decide who can access our waters after 2020 and on what terms, for the first time in over 40 years.”
6. We don’t know what regulations farmers will face
The Prime Minister’s plan for a “common rulebook” to ensure frictionless trade in goods with the EU also covers agri-food but European negotiators could demand common animal health regimes and inspections.
As the Library team put it: “The degree of potential future divergence from the EU is unknown in terms of animal welfare, pesticides approval, plant and animal health regulation, and food labelling requirements and protections.”
Things get even more complicated because agriculture in Wales is the responsibility of the Assembly. Soon, the pressure will be on for the different UK nations to agree common standards in areas such as animal health to ensure there are no obstacles to trade.
Farmers will demand clarity on how farm support will work once Britain is out of the Commons Agricultural Policy. The Welsh Government is consulting on proposals for a new land management programme.
7. We don’t know how the UK Government will agree rules on a single market within the UK
A priority for Whitehall is getting “frameworks” in place so trade inside the UK is not disrupted by different rules in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England.
But as the Commons Library points out: “We know almost nothing about what these common frameworks will look like in practice and how decisions will be taken about their content…
“Perhaps most fundamentally, we do not know whether key decisions about the rules in a common framework will be taken ‘by agreement’ between the four Governments of the UK or whether devolved authorities will only be consulted. We also do not know if these frameworks will be imposed by the UK Government in the event that one or more devolved legislature withholds consent for the primary legislation creating it.”
It is also expected that the consent of the devolved legislatures will have to be sought for the EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill, creating the potential for yet another high stakes constitutional stand-off.
UK ministers will race to make changes to laws so the statute book will make sense once the country is out of the EU. There is uncertainty about just how much freedom they will have to use statutory instruments to alter the law of the land and what degree of scrutiny they will face.
8. We don’t know how development funding will work after Brexit
Wales has received around £4bn in EU structural funds and a key question is how development cash will be allocated post-Brexit.
The plan is that this will be replaced with a UK Shared Prosperity Fund but it is unclear how money will be distributed and by whom. There will be uproar in some quarters in Wales if it is the UK and not the Welsh Government that decides which bids for funding are successful.
9. We don’t know how the Irish border stand-off can be resolved
The UK and the EU agree that the return of a “hard border” in Ireland must be avoided – but how that will be done is the focus of heated debate.
In December last year, in order to end deadlock in the Brexit negotiations, the UK agreed a “backstop” position that if no other solution was found it would “maintain full alignment with those rules of the internal market and the customs union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the [Good Friday Agreement].”
That was enough to keep the talks moving forward but today the Irish border remains one of the biggest obstacles to a UK-EU deal, threatening not just the long-term future relationship but the withdrawal agreement itself.
One way to avoid checks at the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland could be to have the north remain in the same customs territory as the south. But the PM is deeply opposed to anything that would require customs checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, saying that a “border within our own country is something I will never accept and believe no British prime minister could ever accept”.
New legislation passed in recent weeks states it “shall be unlawful for Her Majesty’s Government to enter into arrangements under which Northern Ireland forms part of a separate customs territory to Great Britain”.
There is not even consensus on whether the backstop applies to the whole of the UK or just Northern Ireland, or if fish caught in UK waters around the north be treated as belonging to the UK or EU. The Commons Library also asks whether “the legislation and international agreements that form the Common Travel Area [is] sufficient to ensure Irish and British citizens can travel and work as freely between the two countries as they do now?”
The PM has pledged to come forward with new proposals but given the volatile state of politics in Northern Ireland this is constitutional territory where angels fear to tread.
10. We don’t know if the ‘meaningful vote’ on the deal will be truly meaningful
In December then-Brexit Secretary David Davis committed that Parliament could vote on the Withdrawal Agreement and the “political declaration” on the framework for the future relationship between the EU and the UK.
The Commons Library notes that we don’t know “how long there will be between the vote and exit day”; whether parliamentary committees will be able to take evidence and publish reports; how long the debate will be; and whether the resolution can be amended.
11. We don’t know what will happen if Parliament rejects the deal
If the deal is rejected or if no deal is agreed by January 21 the Government must make a statement on its next steps.
There is the possibility that MPs could seek to use this as an opportunity to issue direct instructions to the Government by trying to amend such a motion. It would be up to the Speaker to rule on whether this can be done, but we might have the extraordinary spectacle of the legislature trying to wrest control of the Brexit process from the executive.
12. We don’t know if the process of leaving the EU can be stopped
Under the two-year Article 50 process, the UK is due to leave the EU on March 29 regardless of whether or not a deal on the future relationship has been agreed.
But is there a pause button that can be pressed?
The Commons Library team write: “The debate about revocability has not been resolved. It is still not clear whether Article 50 could be revoked in the event of the UK changing its mind about Brexit; or whether, if Article 50 is revocable, it would mean the UK staying in the EU on the same terms of membership as at present (with opt-ins and opt-outs etc) or whether the EU would exact conditions for allowing revocation.”
It is also not known whether the UK Parliament would have to pass legislation to stop the process.
A further unknown is how the transition period during which the present relationship with the EU will continue can be extended beyond December 31, 2020.
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