GENEVA Britain's new government would be well advised to ask for more time to negotiate Brexit, trade experts said on Friday, as Prime Minister Theresa May's bid to strengthen her bargaining position through a quick election victory fell flat.
Top trade lawyers at a conference in Geneva struggled to digest the election chaos, but said the vast amount of negotiating and the practical job of implementing a trade deal could not be done by the March, 2019 deadline.
“Listening to all of this, the one thing that I am speculating on as I hear it all is the desperate need, I feel, to buy time," said Jennifer Hillman, formerly an appeals judge at the World Trade Organization and legal counsel to the U.S. Trade Representative.
May's parliamentary majority was wiped out in a snap election she had called to strengthen her hand in Brexit talks, throwing Britain into political turmoil.
"It strikes me there’s no way, no way at all, that this can be done in the two-year time frame, even leaving aside the outcome of the elections,” Hillman said, citing Britain's lack of experienced negotiators and regulators as part of the problem.
Veteran trade litigator Gary Horlick said every question about Brexit generated 10 more, and the need to replace thousands of existing agreements threw up vast practical and logistical issues, some of them relatively trivial.
"Transition is quite possible but someone has to check every single thing," he told the conference, held by the Geneva Graduate Institute and Georgetown University Law Center.
"It’s really made for the KPMGs and PriceWaterHouses of the world.
"To illustrate the complexity… there is a British-French-Irish agreement on the free transit of race horses. If you have a race horse this is no small item. The race horse cannot be stuck in customs, believe me, these are very valuable animals."
Holger Hestermeyer, an international dispute resolution expert at King’s College London who has advised a committee of Britain's House of Lords on Brexit, said May had been wrong to think she needed a big majority in parliament to negotiate with the EU, and now faced a "very, very tough" situation.
"More time is needed," he said.
"The two years is the transition period. If we would now have a transition period industry could rely on that. But they already have to plan for the worst-case scenario. That time frame is just not enough. I thing prolonging it is possible.
"I just see anyone in the UK having a hard time asking because there seems to be some hesitancy to be regarded as critical of Brexit."
Isabelle Van Damme, a trade lawyer at Van Bael & Bellis who previously worked in chambers at the European Court of Justice, agreed.
"I think an extension is absolutely needed but it needs to be asked now and I don’t think there is political capital to do that right now in the United Kingdom," she said.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)