Chequers document may be bold enough to start serious negotiation with Brussels
Denis Staunton: Theresa May faced down Brexiteer ministers – but EU may be sceptical
Theresa May speaks to members of her cabinet at the prime minister’s rural country residence, Chequers, west of London. Photograph: Joel Rouse/AFP/Getty Images
On the face of it, much of what Theresa May’s cabinet agreed at Chequers is unworkable and unlikely to be accepted by the European Union. But the three-page document released after the day-long meeting represents an important political victory for the prime minister, who has faced down her Brexiteer ministers.
The night before the Chequers meeting, seven of those ministers – led by Boris Johnson – met in the foreign office amid rumbles of outrage about leaked details of May’s proposal. Those leaks proved to be accurate and the final text promises everything the Brexiteers feared: full regulatory alignment with the EU for goods and agriculture, and a customs arrangement which treats Britain and the EU as “a common customs territory”.
EU negotiator Michel Barnier on Friday restated Europe’s rejection of the idea that Britain should be part of the single market for goods rather than services. And he made clear that, if there is to be a “common rulebook” for regulation as May proposes, it will be the EU’s rulebook.
Brussels is also sceptical about the latest customs proposal and May’s claim that Westminster will be able to choose which EU regulations to adopt in future will strike a discordant note in Europe.
This Chequers statement was never going to be the blueprint for a final deal, however, but it may be bold enough to start a serious negotiation with Brussels. The most crucial passage for Ireland is buried in the middle of the text, almost as an aside.
“Taken together, we noted that such a relationship would see the UK and the EU meet their commitments to Northern Ireland and Ireland through the overall future relationship: preserving the constitutional and economic integrity of the UK; honouring the letter and the spirit of the Belfast Agreement; and ensuring that the operational legal text the UK will nonetheless agree on the ‘backstop’ solution as part of the Withdrawal Agreement would not need to be brought into effect. In this context, we also noted that this proposal should allow both parties to resolve the remaining Withdrawal Agreement issues, including the ‘backstop’,” it says.
This suggests that Britain is ready to agree a backstop that would allow for a separate customs and regulatory regime for Northern Ireland if no other solution is found to ensure that the Border remains open – on the basis that it will never be required. Coupled with Barnier’s offer to ensure that any checks on goods coming to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK will be purely “technical and operational” this makes an early resolution of the backstop issue more likely.