Ian Swanson: The clock is ticking as we stumble towards Brexit cliff edge

Margaret Thatcher railed against a 'Europan super-state'
Margaret Thatcher railed against a 'Europan super-state'
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CHIEF European Union negotiator Michel Barnier says there are 13 weeks left to negotiate a Brexit deal – and the clock is ticking.

The UK’s departure from the world’s biggest trading block is set for March 29, 2019 at 11pm – but time is needed for not just Westminster but also other European parliaments to ratify the agreed package, so the target date for EU leaders to finalise the withdrawal terms and issue a “political declaration” outlining the broad terms of a free trade accord is the European Council summit on October 18-19.

That could prove a tall order given the disarray over the UK Government’s position.

Theresa May’s Chequers agreement – which was supposed to have united the Cabinet, but led to the resignations of two key figures – doesn’t look as if it’s going anywhere, having failed to satisfy Leavers, Remainers or Brussels.

Former Brexit Secretary David Davis, who walked out in disgust at the Chequers plan, has urged the Prime Minister to rip it up and start again, aiming for a looser relationship with the EU.

His replacement and former deputy Dominic Raab has declared the UK won’t pay the £39 billion divorce settlement reached in December – unless the EU agrees to a free trade deal.

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Meanwhile ex-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who followed Mr Davis through the Cabinet exit door, used his damp-squib resignation speech in the Commons to bluster about Britain believing in itself and its ability to become a “great independent actor on the world stage”.

Now everyone is talking about the increasing likelihood of no deal being reached and the UK crashing out of the EU without any new arrangements in place.

Britain has long had a sceptical – not to say hostile – attitude towards the EU. Even back in 1977, just two years after the referendum confirming UK membership of what was then the European Community, polls showed 40 per cent of British voters thought being a member was “bad” against 35 per cent who said it was “good” – the most negative rating out of all the nine countries then in the EC.

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In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher demanded – and eventually got – money back from Brussels and railed against the idea of a “European super-state”.

The UK stayed out of the common currency as Ukip began winning seats in European Parliament elections. And David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum in the hope of spiking the guns of both Ukip and the Eurosceptics in his own party backfired, bringing us to the current precipice.

Former attorney general Dominic Grieve said at the weekend the UK would be in a “state of emergency” if there is a “no deal” Brexit.

Amazon’s UK boss has warned of civil unrest within days. Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab has refused to deny the Government is planning to stockpile food.

And the SNP has said Scotland’s economy would be devastated. The respected Fraser of Allander think tank has warned wages could fall by £2000 a year, with the number of people in work 80,000 below that expected if Scotland stayed in the EU.

There is still time to reach some kind of sensible deal and escape the worst aspects of this scary and depressing scenario. But the story so far on these negotiations is far from encouraging.