Britain’s quest for the right point in time

It’s all about timing. This is true for all walks of life: For work, for relationships, for international politics. As you might have discovered yourself, it matters a lot whether you find the right point in time to hand in your resignation. The right point in time to ask your partner if he or she wants to marry you. The right point in time to have kids.

The same goes for the world of business and politics. Timing can be crucial here, as the British have found out since the vote for Brexit. As there is no automatic start to the two year-long divorce proceedings, choosing the right point in time for the beginning of the negotiations might strongly influence the outcome.

This decision – when to trigger Article 50, the critical passage of the Lisbon Treaty – lies solely with the British government. Although they might want to, neither Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, nor the Members of the European Parliament or the 27 other Member States, can force Britain to trigger Article 50.

It’s important to realise that the decision over when to trigger Article 50 is one of the last cards the British government has left to play. It thus made sense that David Cameron, the former Prime Minister, did not trigger it straight away after the – for him – disastrous result of the referendum on the 23rd of June became known (although he had said before he would trigger it straight away). Quite the opposite, he left the decision to his successor.

Coming into office without any detailed plans on how to implement the result of the vote, Britain’s new Prime Minister, Theresa May, has spent the last two months trying to find out what the British position is for a life after the EU. Thanks to the decision in Whitehall not to engage in any prior, in-depth planning for the case of a vote for Brexit, May and her staff, as well the other members of her Cabinet, have found themselves frantically trying to close the gaps before the end of the summer break.

The same is happening on the other side. On Monday, Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi will meet in Ventotene in Italy. Then, the German Chancellor will head to Estonia and Poland. The goal for this “European Brexit Tour”, as the FT dubbed it, is clear: Coming up with a unified, European position towards Brexit.

Similar to the British, the Europeans don’t have much time left, as there is a big European summit looming which will be held on the 16th of September, in Bratislava. Despite the fact that some leading figures, among them Jean-Claude Juncker as well as Francois Hollande, have demanded the UK to start the divorce talks quickly, it seems that the Europeans have realised that Britain will take its time.

Initially, the autumn or the end of the year seemed like the most feasible time frame for Britain to begin negotiating its exit. Since then, the date has continuously been pushed back: From the end of 2016 to at least 2017. This scenario would give the British government some more time to find out what it wants: The Norwegian model? A Swiss-style agreement? Or maybe no agreement, resulting in a so-called “hard Brexit“? This option would also make it possible to see how the British economy digests the unexpected outcome of the referendum.

Some observers, among them EU-citizens living in the UK, have cherished the idea that Theresa May might kick the ball long into the grass. She could be waiting many more months, even years, they hope, and by that point have waited until the economy is in such a bad state that the electorate might be willing to let go of the idea to leave the EU. This is, of course, pure speculation, as are some of the other theories that are currently being tested.

Then, the Sunday Times made big headlines last weekend by running a story according to which Prime Minister May could wait until late 2017 or even longer before she triggers Article 50. This makes sense, given that both France and Germany will hold national (or federal) elections next year, with very unforeseeable outcomes. With the possibility of both Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel gone before the end of 2017, some more patience might be justified, as a change in government in important countries such as these will definitely influence the outcome of the Brexit-negotiations between London and Brussels.

However, this idea might not go down too well with the “hard“ Brexit-camp, the likes of Brexit Minister David Davis and Trade Minister Liam Fox. Both have campaigned for a quick Brexit in order to radically transform Britain’s relationship with the outside world. Thus, on Friday, there were widespread reports according to which the British government will not wait for the outcome of the French and the German elections before it triggers Article 50, letting the Pound Sterling tumble. From a market point of view, rumours like these are not welcome: The market does not like surprises, it wants ample time to prepare – in order to prevent the worst (In any case, the deployment of Article 50 will result in a heavy sell-off).

To me, it all comes down to how Theresa May squares the circle. How does she reach a common position between soft and hard Brexiteers? Will she manage to align David Davis and Liam Fox, as well as flip-floppers such as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson? Depending on which position (The Norway model? A Swiss-type agreement? No agreement?) gains the upper hand, May will trigger Article 50 sooner or later. For observers, this will then provide some first insights into what the British government might be after.

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