Time has run out for the government to complete its Brexit preparations and it cannot hope to mitigate all of the negative impacts that will arise if the UK leaves the EU without signing a withdrawal agreement, the Institute for Government has warned.
In a report assessing the UK’s preparedness for leaving the EU, the IfG concluded that if no agreement is reached before March 2019, “just a fraction of the processes and systems required for life outside the EU will be in place”.
“There is insufficient time for much more than temporary sticking plasters, attempting to limit disruption where possible, with work needing to continue long beyond Brexit,” it said.
Major projects including implementing new customs and immigration regimes, securing supply chains of medicines and agricultural products and creating a nuclear safeguards regime will not be completed in time, it said.
The report, published on 17 September, rated nine out of ten policy areas – which also include law and justice and transport – as red, suggesting the government will be unable to prevent them from causing damage to the economy in a no-deal scenario. Only one – EU programmes and funds – was rated green, denoting that preparations will be completed if no deal is reached.
Immigration will pose a problem as there is as yet “no clarity” on the rights of EU citizens in the UK after March 2019, the report said. On the EU border, it noted previous changes to the UK’s customs regime and regulatory requirements have taken “significantly longer” than the six months that remain until the UK leaves the EU.
The report comes less than a week after the National Audit Office concluded the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs would not be able to deliver all of its Brexit plans in the event of no deal. Its report found major milestones had been pushed back following overly optimistic predictions about the pace of progress.
Even if a withdrawal agreement is reached, the planned transition period does not allow enough time for the government to implement all of its plans for life outside the EU, including negotiating trade agreeements, the IfG said. It must use the 21-month period to simultaneously negotiate its future relationship with the EU, and to prepare for all outcomes of these negotiations.
The government has already said it is unlikely that new customs systems will be up and running by December 2020 and immigration plans face similar hurdles, according to the report. Major government projects, including automatic pension enrolment and universal credit, have taken more than a decade to complete and Brexit represents a far greater challenge, it said.
“Given the multiple scenarios, the fact that many details will not be agreed until the last minute at best, and the need to manage the Brexit negotiations and a challenging legislative task at the same time, implementing the kind of Brexit proposed by the UK government in the transition period looks completely unfeasible,” the report said.
The government must now decide whether to prioritise the speedy delivery of Brexit preparations, which will inevitably create disruption in and outside of Whitehall, or to attempt to buy more time before leaving the EU. However, negotiating with the EU for a longer transition period would be challenging and politically contentious, the IfG said.
Responding to the report, a spokesperson for the Department for Exiting the European Union said the government was preparing for all scenarios but it was “confident of achieving a good deal”.
"It is in everyone’s interests to secure a good deal for both sides, and with talks ongoing, we remain firmly on track to reach agreement on the withdrawal agreement and future framework in the autumn,” they said.