Brexit: Avoiding a cliff-edge

After more than 40 years, the UK has voted to leave the European Union (EU), triggering Article 50 of the EU Treaty and beginning the two-year process of severing its ties with the Common Market.

This presents an interesting backdrop for Dr Dimitrios Doukas, Reader in EU Law, and his team in the Law School. With so many questions up in the air regarding the legal implications and practicalities of leaving the EU. There’s a great deal to work out and, as a result, plenty of issues for colleagues at The University of Manchester to immerse themselves in over the coming years. Dimitrios told us there are key stages of Brexit that will need to be unpicked: 

“First we’ve got the arrangements to leave – the actual withdrawal from the EU – how will this work?. Then we need to think about any transitional arrangements that are needed – what they will be, and how long they will be needed for in order to avoid a cliff-edge? 

“Then we have the detail of what kind of relationship the UK ultimately wishes to have with the EU and its member states. At the moment, no one knows what a future arrangement will look like, or if there is going to be one. So, that’s a key area of work for us.” 

Dr Dimitrios Doukas

Dr Dimitrios Doukas

Reader in EU Law.

View academic profile

Dimitrios identifies three key challenges in addressing these stages: Financial liabilities and the ‘exit bill’; the rights of existing EU nationals living in the UK, and UK nationals living in the EU; and the question of cross-border trade in goods or services.

“The so-called ‘exit bill’, adding up to a whopping 40 to 100 billion Euros, refers to money that the UK has already committed itself to pay to the EU over the next five years. To cover things like research funding, infrastructure and pensions for workers – which could include UK expats living in Europe. It’s not really fair to call it a punishment or divorce bill; it’s liabilities that we’ve already committed ourselves to pay. 

“And – this is difficult to sell to the electorate – any transitional arrangement is likely to mean the UK continues to pay into the EU budget for three to five years, even though we’re leaving. 

“But this transition will prove absolutely necessary, in order to avoid a cliff-edge. It will provide some legal certainty, especially for businesses. I’m sure most business owners, even those who voted to leave, would welcome a smooth transition from withdrawal to a future trade agreement.

“Moving from being a fully paid-up member of the EU and being part of the single market, to working within the confines of any trade agreement. It’s like falling from the Champions League to League Two! 

“A trade agreement will probably look something like the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). Which includes the abolition of customs barriers to trade in certain goods, but not of other –non-fiscal – barriers to trade. 

“It may include free movement for a limited number of services. For example, Canada has free movement for financial services, telecommunications, engineering and manufacturing, and air transport. 

“The UK is aiming to have more than this. It’s aiming for a beefed-up Canada-type free trade agreement for the future.” 

The EU Law team have a busy research schedule ahead. The UK Research Councils are keen to receive research proposals relating to Brexit at the moment because the government is asking for help. Dimitrios outlines some of their research plans:

Passengers walking towards passport control with suitcases.

Airport passengers heading towards passport control.

“We have a number of research projects in mind. One we’ve applied for is about comparing the negotiations for the EU-Canada Agreement and using this as a case study for the EU-UK negotiations. 

“One of the things we’re looking at is how the EU-Canada Agreement can be transposed into our negotiations. As well as analysing the challenges faced during the Canadian negotiations with the EU, and what could have been done better. 

“Another aspect we’ll be investigating relates to the tribunal or dispute settlement process that any trade agreement will require. We know the UK government is not keen to maintain jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, and the CETA agreement has mediation and dispute bodies that have been highly controversial. Elements from the European Economic Area model – comprising Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, or the European Free Trade Association model – which is based on bilateral agreements between the EU and Switzerland – could work. Although neither of them was thought to be entirely suitable for the UK, given the UK government’s original intention to withdraw from the single market. They seem to have gained momentum following the recent General Election and the cross-party and business calls for a ‘pragmatic’, ‘open’ or ‘softer’ Brexit.”

The research taking place here is set to have a significant influence on the roll-out of Brexit and future trade agreements with the EU and the rest of the world.

The EU Law team at Manchester is made up of experts in a wide range of areas: the law of the single market, EU and UK constitutional law, media law, employment law, public procurement, and healthcare and competition.

Its multidisciplinary approach involves a variety of academics from the Politics and Economics departments. To look at everything from empirical data to attitudes and negotiating tactics. As Dimitrios, who has also applied for Jean Monnet Chair in EU law, says: “It’s law and beyond!”

“No EU lawyer ever imagined – I certainly never imagined – that I would be seeing this in my lifetime.”

Dimitrios and the team will be using various approaches to influence top-level decision-making. He says: 

“Apart from publishing in academic journals, we’re going to make the research visible immediately – while everything is happening – through blogging, working with the media, and a conference. 

“There are a number of enquiries going on at the moment, and there will probably be many more going on over the next few years. On probably every aspect of the UK economy including trade, immigration, education and research, agriculture, social security and welfare, justice and home affairs. One of the main aims is definitely to feed into all of this at Government and parliament level.”

So, what are Dimitrios’ thoughts on the chances of a smooth Brexit? 

“We simply don’t know yet if we can have a smooth Brexit. No EU lawyer ever imagined – I certainly never imagined – that I would be seeing this in my lifetime. We know we can’t have a better trade deal than the single market, so to say that any future relationship will be better is probably a myth. 

“Sometimes EU leaders are presented as the bad guys. But I don’t think they want a cliff-edge, or that they want to punish the UK. Imagine any organisation; you would expect them to defend the integrity, the principles, the ideals and the future of that organisation. If they let former members leave with a better deal than the members themselves, then they would collapse.

 “It’s not about punishing Britain. I’m sure they will do their best to find the right solution for all, our research will contribute to finding that solution.”