So Brexit meant Brexit after all. Who’d have thunk it? Theresa May’s government was always going to have to come clean about the big Brexit choice to be made between the EU Single Market and full control over immigration: the UK can’t have both. The penny has dropped, but – contrary to some expectations – the pound didn’t. Markets like clarity, and now we have that.
Leaving the Single Market has complex and uncertain implications for the digital economy, made muddier by the fact that the EU’s Digital Single Market policy is still developing. Any future trade deal will need to make provision for the free flow of data, IP protection, taxation on digital services, and so on. There’s a danger that cross-border tech and digital services trade will suffer from new barriers; the UK tech lobby should stay close to the action.
May has made clear her desire for continuing EU cooperation in areas including research, which will cheer UK universities, and criminal intelligence, which is a significant British strength and therefore a key negotiating card.
But elsewhere, it’s impossible to escape the cold logic of withdrawal. A hard Brexit has potentially huge implications for government tech, although effects will materialise at different times. As functions from trade negotiation to environmental regulation are gradually repatriated from the EU to the UK, new bureaucracies must spring up to support them. Defra will be the department most affected; funding under the CAP programme is protected until 2020, but government will be thinking about how it intends to replace EU agricultural and environmental programmes. At some stage, new systems will be needed to implement new policies.
Over at the Home Office, the various programmes looking to track and control the movement of non-EU nationals into the UK will need to scale up, as those processing visa applications have already discovered. And a new, universal immigration system based on work permits would require new systems potentially linking government with employers.
Harder borders will apply to goods as well as people. May’s hybrid plan on the Customs Union, whereby the UK is freed to negotiate its own trade deals whilst still allowing goods to cross the border freely, does not look remotely achievable. Similarly, promises on the Northern Ireland common travel area break basic tenets of EU border control. The inevitable government fudges will no doubt be grounded on vague ministerial promises about the wonders of digital technology. We are therefore looking at a further two major border technology projects in which suppliers with logistics expertise will be well-positioned; they should be seeking an audience for their ideas as soon as possible.
With all of this to do, it’s no surprise that May has faced down the most vociferous Leavers by insisting on a transitional deal.
Still, it’s best not to come away with a vision of Brexit as merely a series of juicy tech projects. This week’s clarity on UK government plans makes the future of the UK itself less certain, given political upheaval in both Northern Ireland and Scotland.
A Scottish Indyref2 seems inevitable, and could be held during 2018 as a form of ultimate Scottish veto on the terms for Brexit. To allay that possibility May has spoken about repatriating powers from Brussels to the devolved nations, not just Westminster. Either way, the logic of Brexit strengthens the logic of devolution within the UK, which is looking less and less united as a market in itself.