Two years, four months and a few days ago, on 23rd June 2016, the UK voted to leave the EU. The date of the UK leaving is currently set at 29th March 2019 – almost three years after the vote. It could be postponed further. In the case of a transitional arrangement that could last until at least the end of 2020, possibly even beyond the general election in 2022. That would be an enormous six years after the historic vote.
EU mandarins as well as Whitehall mandarins will tell you it must be this way because the relationship the UK has with the EU is too complex to untangle sooner.
However, history offers a different angle. World War I lasted four years, World War II lasted six. Perhaps it’s easier to conquer and then lose an entire continent than to separate two jurisdictions peacefully?
Instead, look at Czechoslovakia, the country where I was born, but a country I never think of as my birthplace. That is because before I even went to school, it had not only transformed from a socialist republic and a Soviet satellite to a liberal democracy, but it also split into two nations. All I have ever known, therefore, has been the Czech Republic. All the turbulent history – Václav Havel elected President, the Velvet Revolution, the first free election, the beginning of economic transformation, Václav Klaus elected Prime Minister, the Velvet Divorce – happened within the first six years of my life.
The curious thing about this is the Velvet Divorce. Let me just briefly remind you of the timeline: the pivotal elections that took place on 5th and 6th June 1992 saw Václav Klaus’s party in the Czech Republic and Vladimír Mečiar’s party in Slovakia both take the lion’s share of the vote in their respective state parliaments and the federal parliament (Czechoslovakia had already been a federation for over 20 years at this point).
Tensions erupted quickly. The Czech PM Václav Klaus met the Slovak PM Vladimír Mečiar in Brno on 8th July and they agreed to split up the federation. The agreement was signed on 26th August and Václav Havel resigned his seat in the meantime (20th July). By 13th November, a law had been enacted as to how the federal assets were going to be divvied up and twelve days later, an act was passed that set the dissolution date at 31st December. Complex matters such as the continuity of the Czech Parliament, continuity of laws, arrangements for courts and so on were all swiftly determined by December. A new Czech Constitution was passed on 16th December.
Czechoslovakia was dissolved at midnight on New Year’s Eve. When the people woke up the next morning, they had new nationalities and the Czech Parliament re-elected Václav Havel as President on 26th January 1993.
Within a mere six months, a comprehensive settlement had been agreed and activated. Immobile assets were distributed to the country where they sat, mobile assets and assets abroad were distributed according to the rough population ratio 2:1. Amendments to international treaties signed by Czechoslovakia were negotiated and signed very quickly by both new republics, confirming the continuation of such treaties. In 1996, the two countries signed a protocol specifying the distribution of duties enshrined by treaties signed as Czechoslovakia. All of this happened whilst Czechoslovakia and its constituent countries were undergoing a massive economic transformation.
Czechoslovakia was privatising on an unprecedented scale and at an unprecedented pace. In a way, it was like Brexit and the UK’s 1980s privatisations combined, only a lot more complicated. Whereas the 1980s UK privatised two companies a year, the early 1990s Czechoslovakia privatised two companies an hour. Taken together, these companies’ accounting value was a big share of GDP. The voucher privatisation alone (there were other methods of privatisation) privatised companies worth one third of Czechoslovak GDP. All of this was taking place at the exact same time the republics were being separated.
Let us not forget the fact that Czechoslovakia was also a currency union. The original idea was that the currency would continue after the separation, but the Czechoslovak koruna outlived Czechoslovakia by a mere six weeks.
Where there is a will, there is a way. Two things made this possible: Klaus’s insistence that it must happen fast, before organised business interests as well as government could mount a successful defence of the status quo. Then the fact that the two newly-created governments, for all the tension between them, worked together to apply current or previous arrangements in good faith. Wherever questions or differences arose, they sought an amicable solution where none of the parties would score a win for their side but rather one where future cooperation could be maintained.
Nobody was proposing divorce bills or ridiculous notions of planes not flying, trucks stuck at the border, licences not being recognised, or one country continuing to have jurisdiction over the other for the next 100 years. Time, and good faith, were of the essence.
If Czechs and Slovaks were able to separate an entire country in six months, surely Whitehall and the Berlaymont can find a way to extract one member state sooner than in six years.