Donald Tusk sets out possible framework for Brexit agreement

Only remaining possible model is ‘free trade agreement’, says EU

“How often have I said to you,” Sherlock Holmes asks Watson, “that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”

Exasperated by the UK’s procrastination and red lines, and its inability to spell out with clarity how it sees the shape of a future relationship with the EU, the EU has made a Holmesian stab at it.

In negotiating "guidelines" freely leaked yesterday, European Council president Donald Tusk's team sets out a possible framework for what he called "the only remaining possible model . . . a free trade agreement".

Outside the customs union, outside the single market, leaving the UK to negotiate its own trade deals, and largely independent of the European Court of Justice. Not Canada, not Norway but sui generis.


But senior EU officials were insisting that what they propose to heads of government at their summit on March 23rd is the basis of an “ambitious agreement” that will maintain a uniquely close relationship with the UK in trade, security, and foreign affairs.

Airline flights

The UK will also be invited to continue participating in EU programmes in the fields of research and innovation, as well as in education and culture, and to co-operate to avoid any interruption in airline flights between them.

In what way “ambitious”, one official was asked? Not least in the fact that the EU is suggesting  mutual trade access on the basis of zero tariffs and zero quotas, he said. That would be easier than its agreements with others because they are starting from precisely that.

Unfortunately – Ireland please note – such arrangements would not mean the abolition of customs posts. These, he said, serve other crucial functions than levying tariffs – monitoring goods compliance with regulatory standards,  enforcement  of so-called rules of origin (how much of that car is actually British?), and VAT or excise registration.

The UK will have to do far more in the field of regulatory alignment to make customs posts redundant.

Impossible red lines

That would almost certainly still require it to lift some of its impossible red lines, and there is a clause in the draft which says, in effect, that the EU will at any stage re-evaluate its proposals should, mirabile dictu,  the UK change its position. For now, however, it will work on what it believes is possible.

The hope is that the draft guidelines will be agreed at the end of March, and the European Commission's Brexit task force will then flesh them out into directives for negotiators. The talks on the future relationship, so long  awaited by the UK, can then begin.

But this in only an incremental stage in that process – no discussions on a free trade agreement can legally begin until the UK leaves the union at the end of next March. So what will be agreed, hopefully by October, is a political declaration setting out the aspirations of both sides for such a trade deal.

That declaration, attached to the Withdrawal Agreement (incorporating the transition agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol, both not yet agreed either), will then be put for individual ratification to the 27 states and MEPs ahead of Brexit.

With that many balls in the air, it will take fair winds to get the lot over the line by that time.