Another Brexit document agreed? What does this one mean?
EU, UK agree deal on ‘future relationship’. Sorry, what now?
Another Brexit document agreed ? What’s this one?
The EU and UK have agreed a draft text on how their future relationship will look after Brexit. This follows the finalisation of the draft withdrawal agreement last week. Both documents will go to a summit of EU leaders on Sunday next, November 25th, for political approval. The withdrawal agreement, 580 pages of dense legal text, deals broadly with the terms on which the UK will part from the EU next March. The 26-page political declaration on the future relationship is the first step to sketching out how the two sides will relate in future, in trade, security and other areas. However the actual negotiation of this future relationship will only take place after the UK leaves the EU.
But this all still depends on it getting through the House of Commons?
Yes, it does. If Theresa May loses the House of Commons vote expected next month, then nobody is quite sure what happens next.The point is that neither the withdrawal agreement nor the declaration are agreed yet. As well as the UK vote, the European Parliament also needs to approve the deal and final sign-off by the EU council would not happen until close to departure date.
What are the key points in the new political declaration?
It aims for an ambitious future relationship, which could develop over time though points out that the UK cannot expect to retain the right of membership. The future trading relationship between the two sides will be as “close as possible” , it says and involve a “free-trade area” and “ deep regulatory and customs co-operation”. This is good news for Ireland, as the UK accounts for 13 per cent of our exports – and close to 40 per cent in the food sector – and more than 25 per cent of our imports and the less damage to these, the less the impact of Brexit on our economy.
However t he UK will leave the EU trading bloc – and so whatever new arrangements are put in place are likely to lead to some level of cost for us. Trade will not be “frictionless” as it is now, in the jargon. However the promises to align the two trading blocs could limit border checks . And a commitment to have no tariffs would be good news for the food sector, as well as promise to maintain the same animal health regimes in the UK and EU. The document says the goal will be to minimise border bureaucracy.
There will be years negotiating all this, assuming it is all agreed, which is far from certain given the state of UK politics. And in many areas the UK will face the same decision as it has faced all along – does it stay close to the EU in certain areas, but then accept the price of abiding by more and more rules and regulations set in Brussels.
If the deal goes through, then a transition period kicks in next March when the UK leaves, meaning not much will change until the end of December 2020, except for the UK having no say around the EU table. This is to give time for talks on the details of the future relationship. We also learned on Wednesday that this transition can be extended “ for up to one or two years.” This means the transition could last until the end of 2022, though the Brexiteer lobby will see this as the UK being tied in to Europe for way too long.
What about the Irish Border?
While the withdrawal agreement largely dealt with the “divorce” terms, it also included the much-discussed Irish Border backstop – the guarantee that no matter how the trade talks play out, there will be no hard Border on the island of Ireland.
Ireland has said it is happy that this gives a solid guarantee, though the concept has proved hugely controversial as it would still probably involve some new checks on goods crossing from Britain into the North and leave the North more closely tied to EU rules.
Previously the UK side had raised the prospect of technology and new processes such as special licences for big trading companies being used to avoid border checks. This was shot down in this discussions as not being a practical way to avoid a hard Border.
The political declaration says that both sides agree that they will try to replace the backstop with alternative, permanent arrangements to avoid a hard Border, most likely via future trading arrangements. However the technology issue also resurfaces, with a commitment that “facilitative arrangements and technologies will also be considered in developing any alternative arrangements for ensuring the absence of a hard border on the island of Ireland on a permanent footing”.
This could be presented to Brexiteers and the DUP as a way out of the backstop by Theresa May. However Ireland will point out that the original legal guarantee remains in the withdrawal agreement and that nobody has yet applied such technology anywhere else. With a joint EU/UK committee overseeing the withdrawal agreement and various appeal mechanisms, the whole Border and backstop issue could be with us for many years to come, if this deal gets through.
The future relationship is not all about trade and so the declaration also includes sections on areas like foreign policy, security and defence co-operation, data protection, confronting illegal immigration and law enforcement . It deals with restrictions on freedom-of-movement between the EU and UK - pledging to try to protect holiday travel, but making clear new controls will be in place for longer-term stays. However for Ireland and the UK the common travel area will remain in place, meaning that Irish residents can continue to live and work in the UK and visa versa.
So, in summary?
There is a lot of aspiration in this document and a huge amount still to be negotiated after the UK leaves the EU, if this deal holds. However if it is voted down in the UK parliament then we will enter a new period of uncertainty about what happens next. All sides say they are intent on avoiding a “no deal” Brexit, but if the UK cannot accept this agreement, then fears will grow of this happening.