The Irish Times view on the UK/EU withdrawal agreement: In search of the least worst Brexit

It is clear that significant guarantees on the Border issue have, indeed, been achieved

At least, now, the process is underway and UK prime minister Theresa May has taken the leap. The difficulty for her is that wherever this ends up, the UK will be worse off and will have less significant clout and influence. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

At least, now, the process is underway and UK prime minister Theresa May has taken the leap. The difficulty for her is that wherever this ends up, the UK will be worse off and will have less significant clout and influence. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

 

More than two years after the Brexit vote and a few short months before the date of the UK’s departure from the EU, a draft withdrawal agreement has finally been reached. It is a measure of the chaos which has led up to this that it is far from certain that it will win approval in London.

Those who argued for Brexit have always failed to accept the reality of what leaving the EU means or come up with any vaguely credible plan of their own, but they nonetheless feel free to attack the negotiated plan. Its passage through the House of Commons looks perilous.

Just as Brexit was always going to take a toll on the UK, Ireland is also engaged in a damage-limitation exercise in the talks. Irish negotiators have focused on the Irish Border issue and will also want future trading arrangements between the EU and UK to be as free as possible. Yet wherever this ends up, it will be a deterioration from the existing situation. That much is guaranteed.

Avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland has been the key difficulty in the talks in recent months. The so-called backstop, a way to guarantee that there will be no hard border no matter how future trade talks play out, has proved devilishly difficult to negotiate.

The Government says it is satisfied with the guarantees given in the final text, which include, if necessary, the UK remaining in a customs union with the EU for a period, alongside specific measures for the North.

It is clear that significant guarantees on the Border issue have, indeed, been achieved. The EU has given some ground on its initial backstop plan, but lead negotiator Michel Barnier says this still delivers on the commitment to Ireland. The recasting of the backstop plan may even have some advantages for Ireland.

The Government will want the withdrawal agreement signed for other reasons, too. By including the idea of a UK-wide customs union with the EU, albeit as a temporary measure, it points towards a future trading model which would remove some of the economic dangers to Ireland from Brexit. Crucially, a conclusion of the withdrawal agreement would also remove the threat of a no-deal Brexit and ensure that the transition period kicks in after the UK leaves, meaning not much will change until December 2020 at least.

Significant uncertainties lie ahead, of course. The DUP and the hard-Brexit groups may vote against the plan in the House of Commons. Even if it is passed, much talking lies ahead to negotiate the future relationship between the two sides. At least now the process is under way and British prime minister Theresa May has taken the leap. The difficulty for her is that wherever this ends up, the UK will be worse off and will have less significant clout and influence. But that, unfortunately, is the inevitability of Brexit.

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