May 2022: A very brief history of the Transition Period

The possible need for a transition period was raised before the referendum by former Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell and, inevitably, dismissed as Project Fear. Subsequently, it began to be discussed towards the end of 2016, causing huge ructions within the Tory Party, with Boris Johnson, then the Foreign Secretary, declaring that, on the contrary, 18 months was “ample time” for both the withdrawal and trade agreements. At that time, and well into 2017, the then Brexit Secretary David Davis was talking about agreeing it as a kind of favour to the EU. Despite warnings of lack of preparedness from the HMRC, he insisted that the UK could be ready on time, but an extra period would be needed “for the sake of France, Belgium and the Netherlands”. In fact, those countries were ready on day one, unlike the UK so, like pretty much all of Davis’ comments about Brexit, that can be seen as entirely farcical.

Then, especially in 2018, there were vitriolic debates within the Tory Party about whether to agree a transition period, with Jacob Rees-Mogg, at that time Chair of the ERG, especially insistent that it would make Britain a “vassal state” of the EU. Indeed it became such a toxic concept that the official term used was ‘implementation period’, even though there was nothing to implement at that point. In the end, Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement took over the transition period originally specified in Theresa May’s version of it, which meant, given the various extensions of the Article 50 period, an extremely truncated eleven-month transition between leaving the EU at the end of January 2020 and the end of that year.

Johnson then stubbornly refused to extend this when he had the chance in 2020 despite the obvious need to do so, if only because of the pandemic, which meant that, when the TCA was finally agreed on Christmas Eve, there were just a few working days before the full terms of the new trading arrangement came into force on 1 January 2021. In effect, there was no substantive transition period in the meaning of time to accommodate to the known terms of trade.

This is undoubtedly one reason why so many businesses, smaller ones in particular, struggled and in many cases failed to cope with the change. Indeed many assumed (£), past even the date it was possible, that the government wouldn’t be so foolhardy as to refuse to extend. That was compounded by the refusal of Johnson and his government to acknowledge – even when the TCA was signed – the extent of the new border frictions and, at a deeper level, by the Brexiters’ insistence throughout these years that even to suggest such frictions was, as usual, Project Fear. It is certainly one reason why full import controls were not in place at the end of the transition and, at the time of writing, have been postponed for a fourth time, and are likely never to be introduced to the extent originally envisaged or as applied to EU imports from the UK.


*Because this is indeed a very brief history, I am skating over a lot of detail. In particular, as those following some of the links will realise, in the early days, both pre- and post-referendum, there was often some confusion between agreeing a ‘transition period’ and extending the Article 50 period. In the event, of course, both happened. This also reflected persistent confusion and conflict about whether the WA and TCA could both be done as part of one negotiation.

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