The excitement over how many MPs will vote this way or that on the prime minister’s Brexit deal has obscured the fact that whatever words are finally agreed, a Brexeternity of difficult, tetchy negotiations lie ahead for at least a decade as the UK and EU try and fashion a new modus vivendi.

Take for example the fourth of 147 paragraphs in the Political Declaration which set out the heads of negotiation.

“The future relationship will be based on the integrity of the single market and the customs union and the indivisibility of the four freedoms” while simultaneously committing to “the ending of free movement of people” between the UK and Europe and vice versa. Where is the negotiating guru who can reconcile upholding and ending free movement at the same time?

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Then it is agreed the UK will participate in EU programmes on “science and innovation, youth, culture and education, overseas development and external action, defence capabilities, civil protection and space. These should include a fair and appropriate financial contribution.”

Hang on. The point of Brexit was to stop paying huge amounts of British taxpayers’ money to the EU. This suggests the opposite, as well as joining EU defence programmes – which many in the pro-Brexit camp oppose. 

Paragraph 15 states “The Parties note the United Kingdom’s intention to explore options for a future relationship with the European Investment Bank Group”. The EIB has been investing up to £5bn a year in the UK – from Crossrail to new schools in Yorkshire – which will now end. Membership of the EIB is based on EU membership and negotiating any new participation will only be possible at the end of the tortuous negotiations going into the 2020s

Another contradiction can be found in paragraph 17. “The Parties agree to develop an ambitious economic partnership, respecting the integrity of the Union’s single market and the customs union” while “recognising the development of an independent trade policy by the United Kingdom beyond this economic partnership.” Perhaps there are undiscovered geniuses in Whitehall who can negotiate a final EU-UK trade relationship that can square the circle of access to the single market and customs union and the UK simultaneously cutting its own trade deals. So far, he or she has not surfaced.

On financial services “the Parties agree cooperation should include transparency and appropriate consultation in the process of adoption, suspension and withdrawal of equivalence decisions, information exchange and consultation on regulatory initiatives.” This is blah-blah and will amuse EU negotiators in Switzerland. The Swiss have been locked in negotiations since 1993 to try and get access for their financial services sectors in Zurich and Geneva to the EU market. London will be lucky to conclude a deal on services much before 2050.

Paragraph 41 says the UK and EU will aim “for fair and equal access to public telecommunication networks and services to each other’s services” yet already mobile phone providers in Britain have warned they will reintroduce data roaming charges on 30 March once the UK no longer has to obey EU rules.

A key claim by Theresa May and Brexit enthusiasts is that the UK escapes from the Court of Justice of the EU. But paragraph 134 says that in case of disagreements the UK and EU will “decide the dispute in accordance with the ruling given by the CJEU”. This is not what the Brexit camp and May promised.

Overcoming these and many other contradictions in what is no better than a wishlist of headings for a future EU-UK partnership will take many years. The free trade agreement between Canada and the EU was first proposed 22 years before it was signed and it took seven years to negotiate. It does not cover services or the rights of Canadians to live freely in Europe or EU citizens to work or retire in Canada.

The Japan-EU agreement took six years to negotiate and is limited largely to goods. Any UK-EU negotiations will face immense pressure from domestic producer and NGO lobbies in Britain and the 27 EU member states – from animal rights groups to sectoral protectionists.

In short, far from 29 March being the beginning of the end of Brexit, it is not even the end of the beginning of at least a decade of disputes and political rows. Brexeternity is the UK’s future.

Denis MacShane is the former minister of Europe

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