If there is a Brexit deal this is what it will look like

Deal would see EU writing the outline of a bare-bones customs union covering all the UK

British prime minister Theresa May speaking during prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons on October 31st. Photograph: PA Wire

British prime minister Theresa May speaking during prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons on October 31st. Photograph: PA Wire

 

The talk at Westminster this weekend is of an imminent breakthrough on Brexit, with some optimists suggesting Theresa May could bring a deal to cabinet as early as next Tuesday. British and EU negotiators have gone into a “tunnel” of intense talks, conducted in secret, aimed at finding a compromise on the Northern Ireland backstop.

EU deputy chief negotiator Sabine Weyand last Wednesday briefed ambassadors from the 27 remaining member states on the state of negotiations and the shape of a possible compromise. It would see the EU agreeing to write into the legally-binding withdrawal agreement the outline of a bare-bones customs union covering the whole of the UK.

The agreement would still include a Northern Ireland-specific backstop that would require compliance with the full EU customs code and regulations on goods and agri-food products. The UK-wide version would see Britain applying the same tariffs as the EU on imports from outside Europe.

The proposal would mean that there would be no customs barrier in the Irish Sea, remaining within the red line restated by May’s official spokeswoman on Friday that Northern Ireland must not be in a separate customs territory to the rest of the UK.

The DUP is openly hostile towards May, and its senior figures at Westminster have allied themselves with hardline Brexiteers who want to topple her

Senior British government figures believe they can use the threat of a no-deal Brexit and the hard border it would make inevitable to persuade the EU to dissolve the Northern Ireland-only backstop completely.

Brussels and Dublin continue to insist, however, that without a Northern Ireland-specific backstop there will be no withdrawal agreement.

“This is a matter of physics, not chemistry. This is not about dissolving anything, it’s about two things alongside one another,” a senior EU source said.

Misgivings

Some EU member states have misgivings about the compromise proposal too, arguing that a legally-binding commitment to a customs union should not be cobbled together in a few weeks. They fear that unless Britain signs up to binding commitments on environmental and labour standards, taxation and state-aid rules, the customs deal could give British producers a competitive advantage.

Before May presents any deal to cabinet she will almost certainly run it past attorney general Geoffrey Cox, who has promised to provide ministers with a written legal opinion on it. Cox will wish to be satisfied that the commitment to a UK-wide customs arrangement is legally-binding, and about how Britain will be able to exit that arrangement and the Northern Ireland-only backstop in the future.

The deal could survive the resignation of a couple of minor Brexiteers such as international development secretary Penny Mordaunt or work and pensions secretary Esther McVey. But if Brexit secretary Dominic Raab or environment secretary Michael Gove were to quit the prime minister would have little chance of winning her party’s backing for the deal.

The DUP has painted itself into such a hardline position on the backstop that it will be difficult for it to accept any deal that would see increased regulatory checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The party is openly hostile towards May, and its senior figures at Westminster have allied themselves with hardline Brexiteers who want to topple her.

Enormous pressure

If a deal is agreed this month MPs will come under enormous pressure to approve it in a vote before Christmas. EU leaders will make clear that the choice is between May’s deal and no deal, slamming the door on an extension of article 50 negotiations to accommodate a renegotiation or a second referendum.

May and her allies will adopt a carrot and stick approach, pointing to the promise of a good deal on services and data in the political declaration that accompanies the withdrawal agreement and warning of the catastrophic consequences of crashing out without a deal

Anti-Brexit Conservatives say they are prepared to vote against a deal they believe will damage Britain’s economy, but one rebel predicted that the whips would pull out all the stops. “They will bully, arm twist, cajole, offer knighthoods, deploy the whole arsenal,” he said.

So even if negotiators agree a deal next week, which is anything but certain, the risk of a no-deal Brexit remains as high as it ever has

More than 50 Conservative Brexiteers have signed a pledge to oppose any deal based on May’s Chequers plan to remain aligned to EU regulations on goods. However, one former minister predicted this week that many Brexiteers would vote for a deal because they fear that a defeat for the government could have unpredictable consequences, possibly including the reversal of Brexit.

“They’ll think, we run the risk of not leaving. Let’s get out and sort it out later, get rid of the prime minister, and put in someone more to our liking to improve the deal after we’ve left,” he said.

A deal that keeps Britain in a form of customs union with the EU could win the support of some Labour MPs who want to get Brexit over with because they believe it is sucking the life blood out of everything else in politics. Labour’s official position will almost certainly be to oppose a deal, but the leadership can’t depend on loyalty from all its MPs.

Further problems

Even if May wins a “meaningful vote” on the deal before Christmas and avoids amendments calling for a renegotiation or a second referendum, she could face further problems at Westminster later. The withdrawal agreement will require implementation legislation to authorise, for example, the terms of the post-Brexit transition period.

This legislation, which will require MPs to vote for continued payments to the EU while Britain follows rules made in Brussels in which it has no say, will offer rebels on all sides an opportunity to table wrecking amendments.

So even if negotiators agree a deal next week, which is anything but certain, the risk of a no-deal Brexit remains as high as it ever has and its likely impact as catastrophic.

Denis Staunton is London editor

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