I’m not going to say anything about the content of yesterday’s speech: I talked about the likelihood of a transition arrangement that involved us staying in the Customs Union and Single Market back in March. My only uncertainty then was whether May could be pushed to a No Deal outcome, but as the government has done absolutely nothing to prepare for that outcome it now seems an empty threat. As for a two year transition period, its an insider joke. You have to have no idea about trade negotiations to imagine it could be done in that time, but as that includes most Brexiteers it serves its purpose.
Instead I want to talk about is what could be the real obstacle to the negotiations moving on to the next stage, and that is the Irish border issue. Many have noted that putting it as a first stage issue seems illogical, because what happens to the Irish border will depend on future trade arrangements between the UK and the EU. There obvious answer to why the Irish border question got put in the first stage is that the EU want to force the UK into staying in the EU’s Customs Union precisely to avoid recreating a border between the two parts of Ireland.*
The UK’s paper on this question makes it clear that there is no realistic compromise on this issue, as Ian Dunt’s discussion makes clear. There is a third way, which is for Northern Ireland to remain part of the Customs Union while the rest of the UK is not, but the DUP will have none of that. This was a major implication of the election result and May’s bribes to obtain a confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP.
A key political question will therefore be whether the Irish government and the EU will play this card that they have dealt themselves. The Irish government would like to, but I suspect (from past experience) that if they came under pressure from the rest of the EU they would back down. But the EU would also like the UK to remain in the Customs Union to resolve the border issue. Indeed everyone would be better off if the UK committed to staying in the Customs Union on a permanent basis. The only obstacle to this are the fantasies of Brexiteers, personified in the department led by Liam Fox.
I said I was not going to talk about it, but perhaps this was one reason why May gave her speech yesterday. By confirming that there could be a transitional deal (which Richard Baldwin might call a pay, obey but no say period), she hopes to dampen the resolve of the Irish government and the EU to make this a sticking point in the negotiations. Will either party think to itself 2 years will become 5, by which time we will have a different government that is likely to make the transitional permanent, or will they use their dominant position in the negotiations to try and force the UK to stay in the Customs Union to avoid creating a border (and perhaps also force the resignation of Fox and others)? At the moment we do not know, but I suspect once again Mrs. May and her cabinet have misjudged the EU side.
*I've added to this sentence and elsewhere compared to the first version of this post, which might have been construed as implying the border was being used as an instrument to achieving an economic goal. I do not think that is the case.