Brexit Q&A: What’s going on? Are the British pulling back?

David Davis caused consternation with comments he has since clarified

British prime minister  Theresa May is taking an upbeat stance on securing a Brexit deal, as Ireland insists the UK must stick to its commitments on keeping a soft border with the Republic. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Wire

British prime minister Theresa May is taking an upbeat stance on securing a Brexit deal, as Ireland insists the UK must stick to its commitments on keeping a soft border with the Republic. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Wire

 

What’s going on in London - are the British pulling back from the Brexit deal last week?

As of now, it seems not. David Davis, the British Brexit minister, said on Sunday that the agreement reached on the Irish Border was just a “statement of intent more than anything else”.

This understandably led to concern in Ireland, with the Government saying Dublin and Brussels will be holding the UK to what was agreed.

Davis has since clarified his statement, telling LBC radio in London on Monday that his initial comments to the BBC’s Andrew Marr had been taken out of context.

“Of course it’s legally enforceable under the withdrawal agreement but even if that didn’t happen for some reason, if something went wrong, we would still be seeking to provide a frictionless invisible border with Ireland,” he said.

Davis wasn’t the only British politician taking such a position, however.

Brexiteers and Remainers in London have taken different meaning from the phrase of continuing “regulatory alignment” that is at the heart of the deal reached on the Border.

As always, the Conservative Party is split on Europe and there is enough ambiguity in the deal to allow different wings take what they want from what was agreed last week.

The different points of view in London show the difficult task facing British prime minister Theresa May as she tries to manage her own party.

Right. But EU leaders still have to formally give their approval to the deal agreed last week?

Yes, that’s correct. The European Commission has made a recommendation to the European Council - comprising the heads of state and government of EU member states - that they too adjudge that “sufficient progress” has been made to allow the talks proceed to the second phase.

Phase two will focus on the transition phase once Brexit officially kicks in in March 2019 and the future EU-UK trading relationship.

It is extremely unlikely that the European Council will, after the drama of the past week or so, reject the recommendation from the commission.

So, what effect will the latest comments from the British government actually have?

It certainly will colour the atmosphere as talks proceed to phase two and cast further doubt on Theresa May’s strength as a negotiating partner. May’s ability to get a deal over the line in London was already in question after the DUP’s Arlene Foster objected to elements of initial deal last Monday.

While May pulled off an amended agreement by last Friday, backsliding in London will not encourage EU leaders that she will be able to sell - let alone stick to - whatever further compromises will have to be made.

And while there is much talk of the post-2019 transitional deal effectively meaning that Britain will continue to apply all the rules of the EU, and adhere to elements of membership it does not like, such as free movement of people, other issues may come into play.

Senior Government sources say there is a desire in a number of European capitals, such as Paris and Berlin, for Britain to take some hits even in the transitional phase, perhaps on Britain’s cherished financial services sector.

One senior figure remarked that, with elections to the European Parliament taking place in spring 2019, Britain cannot be seen to be leaving the EU free of any immediate consequences.

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