Brexit transition agreement paves way for new phase of talks

Fate of Northern Irish Border among disagreements to be dealt with in negotiations

David Davis (left) and EU  Michel Barnier address a press conference in Brussels on Monday. Photograph: Emmanuel Dundand/AFP/Getty Images

David Davis (left) and EU Michel Barnier address a press conference in Brussels on Monday. Photograph: Emmanuel Dundand/AFP/Getty Images

 

Agreement on the Brexit transition and much of the legal text of the UK’s Withdrawal Agreement will allow EU leaders to approve the opening of a new phase of talks on trade and their future relationship.

But important disagreements remain for further talks, not least on the Irish Border.

During intensive meetings in Brussels over the weekend, the negotiators tied down agreement on, among other issues, treaty language on citizens rights and the “financial settlement”, the two big chapters of the December joint report on phase one discussions.

Although both sides agreed that much remains to be decided on the Irish Border, both reiterated their full commitments to the December agreement and its provisions on the Border for a fallback “backstop” provision which will kick in should broader trade talks fail to produce a preferred EU-UK free trade agreement. They agreed, moreover, in an important concession to Dublin, that the backstop protocol in the December report should be reflected in the legal provisions of the Withdrawal Agreement.

With an understanding that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”, EU officials were stressing that meant that there was no opportunity for the UK to “backslide” on its no hard border pledge.

British sources were, however, insisting that although there was agreement to the principle of a backstop there was still no agreement on how it would be expressed.

Asked if the UK insistence in December on no impediments to trade across the Irish Sea was reflected in the latest agreement, UK Brexit secretary David Davis would only say that the “aim” of their agreement was no hard border.

Announcing the latest deal as a “decisive” step forward, the EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and his British counterpart told journalists the “transition” deal had achieved an important measure of certainty for both businesses and citizens.

Businesses , Mr Davis said, could continue to “operate and invest with confidence”, while EU citizens moving to the UK during transition would be guaranteed all the rights they currently enjoy.

Discussions

The UK and its business community urgently want a green light and certainty on the transition deal which is part of the overall Withdrawal Agreement, a text expressing in legal form the joint report produced at the end of phase one discussions in December.

Heads of government meeting in Brussels on Thursday and Friday are due to hear a report by Mr Barnier on the state of play of negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement and will approve, should he indicate “sufficient progress, moving to phase-two discussions on trade and the future EU-UK relationship by agreeing to the guidelines for those talks.”

The Withdrawal Agreement includes the still-difficult provisions in the Irish protocol, the controversial “backstop” Border arrangement to which the UK is ostensibly committed by the December deal should it fail to negotiate its preferred free trade arrangements.

The transition deal provides for a continuation for 21 months of current rights and duties in the EU for the UK once it has left the union at the end of next March, minus a seat at the decision-making tables.

Agreement was reached over the weekend between officials to final compromises on transition, notably its 21-month duration and arrangements for consulting the UK over new regulations it will have to implement. There was agreement that the UK will be able during the period to begin discussions with third countries on the 750 international agreements which the EU has signed up to and to which it will no longer be party at the end of transition.

No new agreements can become operative until then.

The UK also made clear its willingness to accept current fishing quotas during the next two years and it will be consulted over the setting of quotas for 2020, but has been assured that its share of total allowable catch will not be cut.