Brussels to witness jostling over Brexit’s political declaration
Coveney welcomes solidarity on withdrawal agreement but focus now on finalising text
Michel Barnier: his focus this week will be solely on completing the draft. Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/EPA
Asked about talk in London of renegotiating the deal, he said there had been “a very clear consensus at today’s General Affairs Council [European affairs ministers] meeting that the wording as signed off on last week should not change”.
The focus turns this week, however, to finalising a crucial joint EU-UK political declaration on their future relationship due to be signed off alongside the withdrawal agreement by the special Brexit summit this weekend.
It is an issue on which the same unanimity among the 27 will not be found, and where, as Mr Coveney put it, British prime minister Theresa May may find some “room for manoeuvre”.
Mrs May is expected in Brussels this week for talks with European Commission president Jean Claude Juncker ahead of the summit.
The text of a seven-page outline of the political declaration, expected to end up three times that length, was presented to EU ambassadors on Sunday by union chief negotiator Michel Barnier, who said on Monday that his focus this week would be solely on completing the draft.
The declaration sets outs out the aspiration of both sides for a relationship based on free trade, close regulatory and customs alignment, and on a strong security partnership.
Mrs May is reportedly pinning her hopes of winning over members of her party who are sceptical of the withdrawal agreement with an “ambitious” declaration promising to establish a free trade agreement and make clear the UK will be able to go it alone in making trade deals around the world, recoup its EU payments and control migration.
But while willing to embrace the idea of free trade, many of the 27 – led by the French – are adamant that the declaration will also have to include stronger “level playing field” pledges to ensure that access to EU markets is based on regulatory alignment to EU standards ranging from labour to environment and state aid rules. That is the only way, they say, the UK will not get a competitive advantage from being outside the union.
These are precisely the issues which have proved so difficult for the UK in the withdrawal agreement temporary customs arrangement.
And the Dutch, among others, have signalled that they want more robust language on three key issues: fisheries, trade-in services and internal security.
They also want to see stronger commitments from the UK to what are termed “dynamic alignment” and “non-regression” – promises that when the UK goes it alone it will incorporate in its laws new changes to EU legislation and not to dilute current standards.
Mrs May is believed to want, among other things, to remove or rewrite language in the draft that talks of future “ambitious customs arrangements that build on the single customs territory provided for in the withdrawal agreement”. The phrase is seen as particularly toxic by some Brexiteers who say it is in effect an attempt to tie the UK permanently into an elaborate regulatory regime.
Mr Coveney insisted the extensive list of regulations referred to in the withdrawal agreement backstop provisions represent a “fair recognition of the reality of the level playing field”.
He stressed that the level of disagreement among the 27 is marginal and that “there is always friction when you are trying to get a wording right that is the basis of what a future relationship is likely to look like. The EU’s primary concern is to ensure that its own single market and its own customs union isn’t damaged or undermined in the future.”
The only element of the withdrawal agreement yet to be agreed is the length of any one-off extension of the transition period after the UK leaves the EU. That currently ends at the end of 2020, but concern that it will not be possible to negotiate a new future relationship agreement by then has prompted discussion on extending it – primarily, as Mr Barnier emphasised, so that the Northern Ireland backstop never has to kick in.
Mr Barnier suggested a two-year extension to the end of 2022 to ambassadors on Sunday. Mrs May insisted on Monday that any extension to transition would have to end before the next UK election. They will agree a final date this week. Mr Coveney insisted “that’s a matter for the UK primarily. It would be unhelpful for me to put a figure on it.”